John Oxley

John Oxley

Barrister and Campaign Manager at Vardags & Campaign for Family Law Reform

John Oxley on the work of The Campaign for Family Reform

2017 has seen the call for “No-fault” divorce move from the niche world of family lawyers and into the public consciousness. The cause came to prominence by the case of Tini Owens – the lady who was refused a divorce and compelled by the courts to remain married to a man she wanted to leave. It has been further bolstered by Baroness Hale, who repeated calls for reform upon her investiture as president of the Supreme Court. The Campaign for Family Law Reform seeks to capitalise on this moment to secure political action which makes the divorce process fit for twenty-first century families.

Our current divorce law dates from 1973, and relies on the doctrine of fault to justify an end to the marriage. Anyone who seeks a divorce has to put the blame for the breakdown of their relationship squarely on the other party and set out to the court just why they should be granted a divorce. The respondent to such a petition can contest the reasons and, if the court is not satisfied that they are good enough, it can refuse to grant it. In such circumstances, the couple are forced to remain married for up to five years, after which a divorce on the grounds of separation is possible even if the respondent does not consent to it.

In reality, almost no marriages reach that point. The vast majority are uncontested, and only a handful of cases go to a final hearing. The need to prove fault still causes anguish for many couples. Rather than allowing them to reach an adult decision about ending their relationship, they are forced to start proceedings in an antagonistic manner. This often sours any chance of co-operation during the divorce process and causes lingering issues which affect co-parenting in the future. Contesting divorce proceedings can also be a way of abusive partners trapping their spouses and preventing them from moving on to safety.

At the Campaign for Family Law Reform, we believe it is time to do away with the arcane need to prove fault. Our society has come to recognise that marriages break-up for all sorts of reasons, and it is wrong that this process makes divorce more fraught than it needs to be. Whilst there are good reasons for the state to support marriage, fault-based divorce is not the way to do it.
The current system does nothing to keep marriages on track, but instead simply penalises those who have come to the decision to end them. Acrimonious divorce causes long-term problems for co-parenting and insisting on fault damages, rather than helps, families.

A change to this law can come only from Parliament, and that is why our campaign seeks to lobby politicians at the highest levels to bring forth much needed reform. The campaign was launched with a successful fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, featuring Ayesha Vardag, our founder, presenters Nick Ferrari and Katie Hopkins, as well as Thomas Pascoe from the Coalition for Marriage and Robert Courts MP.

The event was packed and the lively debate highlighted the issue beyond the circle of family lawyers who have been talking about this for years. The lively and provocative debate really engaged the audience, with a poll at the end suggesting strong support for a move to “no-fault divorce”. We are now looking to seize this moment and work with senior politicians to bring about the long-overdue change.

It is nearly half a century since our divorce laws were last properly examined. Society has moved on greatly, and it is time our laws did too. We hope to push this need for change not just into the public arena, but onto the political agenda and the statute books.