The number of divorces fell during the year the coronavirus pandemic hit, figures show.

There were 103,592 divorces granted in England and Wales in 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

This is down 4.5% compared to the number granted in 2019.

The ONS said factors, such as family courts temporarily suspending operations, “may have affected the number and timeliness of completed divorces” but it is difficult to know to what extent.

Legal experts suggested that the figures “don’t tell the whole story” of the “seismic” impact of the pandemic, and warned of a potential record number of divorces in 2021.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

The vast majority (102,438) of divorces granted in 2020 were among opposite-sex couples – down 4.7% from 2019.

Some 1,154 divorces were granted to same-sex couples – a 40.4% rise from the previous year.

For wives seeking divorce from their husbands, unreasonable behaviour was the most common reason (accounting for 47.4% of divorce petitions).

For husbands petitioning to divorce their wives, the most common reason was a two-year separation (34.7%) followed by unreasonable behaviour (33.8%).

Unreasonable behaviour was the most common reason for divorce among both male (57.0%) and female (55.2%) same-sex couples.

Legal experts said family court backlogs “may well obscure” the true number of proceedings that commenced in 2020, and that the real impact will only be seen in next year’s figures.

Caroline Burstein, a solicitor at Kent and London law firm Thackray Williams, said: “It was only after the first lockdown ended that people started to take the first steps towards divorce.

“So, with divorces typically taking a minimum of six months to finalise – more where the finances have to be resolved – the real impact of lockdown life won’t be seen until the release of next year’s statistics.”

Joanne Wescott, a family partner at Osbornes Law, said: “The seismic impact of the pandemic on marriages will only be revealed next year where we could see record numbers of divorces.”

William Longrigg, partner at Charles Russell Speechlys, suggested that couples may have been waiting to take advantage of the introduction of no-fault divorce, allowing them “to avoid the blame game”.

This is expected later this year, following delays.

But Claire Reid, a partner with Hall Brown Family Law, said this may not be a reason.

For the first part of 2020, many couples were “more concerned about the impact of Covid-19 than trying to resolve difficulties in their marriage”, she said.

Some were aware of upcoming legislation and wanted to pursue a “conflict-free process”, but the firm’s advice was to continue under the existing law.

She added: “Even allowing for the fact that ministers initially intended the law to take effect in 2021, a year is a long time for a couple experiencing difficulties to wait before beginning the process to end their marriages.”

Elspeth Kinder, partner and head of family law at JMW Solicitors, said financial hardship and concern about “heaping more misery into the mix” for children whose lives had already been turned upside down by lockdown restrictions may have prevented people from filing for divorce.

She said: “There was also a lot of worry around arrangements for children during the pandemic and moving them between two homes; for those who weren’t in an abusive or challenging relationship, but had simply grown apart, divorce was very much still on the cards but put on the back burner for the sake of their family.

“The inability to lean on friends and family as we normally would is likely to have prevented some people from divorcing – it’s a major life event with a lot of emotions involved and to do it without the support of loved ones, even just a cup of tea and a hug, may have felt too steep a mountain to climb alone.”

Aidan Jones, chief executive at Relate, said many of the couples it supported during the pandemic successfully worked through their problems, and the majority of those who did not would have struggled to get a divorce granted in 2020 due to the temporary suspension of hearings.

He continued: “The rise in divorces among same-sex couples in 2020 was significant but you would naturally expect divorces to increase in line with the number of married same-sex couples.

“It’s difficult to speculate about why rates among female same-sex couples remain high and it would be an interesting area for more research.”