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Usain Bolt and the New Divorce Form: Ending Well in a Culture of Winning and Losing

At the Olympic Stadium in August this year, Usain Bolt lined up for a 100m race that was to bring the curtain down on his incredible career. After all he has achieved he will go down in history as a winner. Yet, for all his success in the past, that evening turned out not to be about winning (he finished third) but more about ending well, setting himself up for his life after athletics. Even amidst the pain and disappointment, his actions in defeat demonstrated to the world that whatever happened that evening he planned primarily to end that chapter of his life well.

August 2017 marked another event that was somewhat overshadowed by Bolt’s exploits; the introduction of the new divorce petition form. I am sure you are wondering how you missed it. If you did, do not worry because the new form has been redesigned for just those people who are more likely to be busy watching the athletics than eagerly awaiting the latest news from the President of the Family Division.

Accessibility and usability of new divorce form

Indeed, the new form has succeeded in becoming much more accessible and easier to complete for the general public. It has been simplified for a system where very little legal aid is available and where consequently more and more people are trying their hand at a spot of divorce DIY and looking to conduct proceedings without the help of family lawyers. The new form will certainly help with this. No longer does the form ask you whether the court has jurisdiction under Article 3(1) of the 2201/2003 EC regulations or whether you would like an order under s24B of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.It demystifies much of the jargon and helps to break through some of the archaism which can make the courts feel so inaccessible.

However, divorce proceedings are so much more than jumping through legal hoops and negotiating tricky terminology. Despite the media coverage of the winners and losers, divorce proceedings should primarily be about ending a chapter of life well and moving on positively.

When it comes to divorce proceedings, family lawyers are expected to reduce any conflict and confrontation and to help make what is normally a very emotionally charged end into a positive transition for the future. Sadly, this is where the new form fails to help and there are two primary reasons for this.

1.To get a divorce in this country without separating for at least two years, blame needs to be laid at the feet of one party or the other. Within the family law profession there has been a near universal call in recent years for an extra option to be available where both spouses can separately declare that their marriage has broken down without declaring fault. Tensions are already high during a divorce before parties are then required to sling mud at each other and ‘win’ the process.

The blame game discourages an amicable ending and can make subsequent discussions over children and finances much more difficult and lengthy. New research released today shows that it incentivises people to exaggerate their claims which leads to unnecessary conflict. Despite a parliamentary bill in 2015 calling for such a no fault option for divorce, no change was made to the new form.

2. There is a much more prominent option in the new form to name your spouse’s fellow adulterer. Whilst still hurting from the pain of an affair, the opportunity for a divorcee to make the court aware of who it was who made this happen is too tempting for many to pass up. However naming an adulterer makes them a party to the proceedings which increases costs and delays and does nothing to relieve the stress of the situation. For this reason a family lawyer’s advice will nearly always be to not ‘name and shame’.

The new divorce form, is a step forward, as it is certainly easier to understand. It will not, however, help spouses to end this particular life chapter well and move on positively after their divorce. In my view, only legislation can bring about the required changes to fault based divorce.

The choices made during a divorce can have profound impacts on the wife, husband and any children involved and a family lawyer’s role is vital to ensure that everyone’s focus throughout is not on winning, but on ending well. It would be high time legislation was changed to help with this.