No-fault 'quickie' divorces to be voted through on Monday amid backlash from MPs

Christopher Hope
Boris Johnson faces a rebellion from MPs who say the proposals have not been scrutinised effectively - EPA

No fault 'quickie' divorces will be legal from as early as next month, as Boris Johnson faces a backlash for introducing the plans at a time when many marriages are under stress in the coronavirus lockdown.

The reforms will be voted on in the House of Commons on Monday, but could be opposed by dozens of Conservative MPs amid concerns that the relaxation of marriage laws will lead to a spike in divorces.

It comes after legal advice firm Co-op Legal Services revealed earlier this week that divorce inquiries had jumped by more than 40 per cent during the lockdown. A similar surge in divorce was recorded in China. 

The reforms would mean that a 'no fault' divorce could be granted to a couple after a wait of just six months rather than after a separation by agreement lasting two years.

The changes also allow one partner to instigate divorce proceedings and start a 20 week "reflection period" before the divorce can be granted, without notifying their spouse.

The new law will go through with a large majority because of the probable support of Labour and the Liberal Democrats for a measure which was not in the Conservatives' general election manifesto. It is expected to pass all of the stages necessary for it to become law by the end of July. 

A legal firm revealed this week that divorce inquiries had jumped by more than 40 per cent during the lockdown

However, "dozens" of Tories are prepared to rebel on Monday, some of them for the first time, after the plans were "sprung" on them, MPs have told the Telegraph. 

In a letter to 200 Conservative MPs sent on Friday, seen by The Telegraph, Tory MPs Sir Edward Leigh, Fiona Bruce and Sir John Hayes said they were concerned the reforms will lead to "an immediate ‘spike’ in divorce rates".

Stressing that "there is simply no public support for this Bill – which was not in the Conservative manifesto", they said: "Living in lockdown during the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated difficulties in many relationships.

"Now more than ever we need to provide much more support for couples – and their families – many of whom desperately want to make their marriages work; as drafted this Bill is not the way to achieve this."  

MPs were told on Thursday that the Government intended to press ahead with the second reading of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill into law despite the concerns among backbenchers.

A number of Tories are leading a delegation on Monday to meet with Government whips and ministers to try to avert an embarrassing rebellion.

Read more: Zoom negotiations and delays: What it's like going through a divorce in lockdown

Lord Farmer says in The Telegraph today that the reforms send "a strong and staggeringly unhelpful signal" about the value of marriage - CHRIS GANDER

They want ministers to agree to water down the proposals - by granting divorces after a minimum of nine months not the proposed six months - at the very least.

Confirming to the Telegraph that he plans to rebel unless the Government amends its plans, Sir Edward said: "I don't understand why the Government is going for this quick-style divorce ... The killer point is if you make something easier it will happen more often.

"It is a strange time to be doing it [during the coronavirus lockdown] when people might be vexed or unhappy for various reasons.

"We don't understand why - in the present time - it is necessary to do this. I assure you that in the Dog and Duck [pub] in Grimsby or Scunthorpe there is no great demand for no fault divorce."

Sir John added: "It is extraordinary that we should be doing this at a time when families need support and communities need stability, we are passing a Bill that risks both family lives and communal life.

"It is bizarre that we are now suggesting that people can get divorced in six months. Next we will have drive-through divorces."

Ms Bruce said: "We should be helping to strengthen and support family relationships particularly at such a stressful time during the current coronavirus crisis, not to weaken them.

"There is a real risk that this relaxation could lead to a regrettable spike in divorces at this particular time.

"You have people under great stress who will see an easy exit route when we should be supporting them to be focusing on reconciliation."

Read more: Divorce and coronavirus Q&A: from child maintenance payments to financial settlements

The rules would mean a couple could get divorced after a wait of just six months rather than separating for two years  - RUBBERBALL

Other prospective rebels include some younger Tories elected for the first time in December including Danny Kruger - who worked as a private secretary for Mr Johnson in 10 Downing Street - and Sally-Ann Hart.

Former Tory party treasurer Lord Farmer said the timing of the reforms was "appallingly insensitive to the national mood but also deeply irresponsible".

Writing for the Telegraph's website, Lord Farmer said that given reports of "spikes in marital discord", the "very last thing they should be doing is changing the legal framework to enable partners to divorce unilaterally, thereby sending a strong and staggeringly unhelpful signal about the commitment of marriage".

Lord Farmer said: "The Government is singing a siren song to all couples tempted by the relational short-termism it represents.

He added that ministers "need to recognise that this Bill dismantles the meaning of commitments people made to each other in gentler times.

"It’s not about forcing spouses to stay with abusers, it’s about keeping the protective fence around save-able marriages intact, instead of knocking a hole in it with the destabilising influence no-fault divorce exerts."

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Former Justice secretary David Gauke proposed the reforms last summer following the Supreme Court's rejection of a woman's appeal for divorce after her husband refused to agree to a split.

Tini Owens, 68, wanted to divorce her husband of 40 years, on the grounds that she was unhappy.

But her husband Hugh refused to agree to it and the Supreme Court unanimously rejected her appeal. It meant the couple must remain married until 2020.    

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We will always uphold the institution of marriage. But when divorce cannot be avoided, the law must not create conflict between couples that can harm any children involved.

“Our reforms remove the needless ‘blame game’, while ensuring there is a minimum six-month timeframe to allow for reflection and the opportunity to turn back.”

A department source added that "a minimum timeframe of six months ensures space for meaningful reflection and the opportunity to turn back.

"When parents have taken the difficult decision to divorce, children’s best interests are served by minimising conflict during and after the legal process to enable parents to move on in as constructive a way as possible."