ONS 2020 Divorce Statistics

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ONS 2020 Divorce Statistics

Another year, another ONS release.

The statistics for completed divorces 2020 have been published and the headline figures show a 4.5% decrease in the number of completed divorces.

What if anything can we read into this?

Why do divorce statistics change?

Many factors drive the number of completed divorces in a given year. It is very difficult to pin year on year changes to a particular cause.

Context matters and it is important to remember that statistics vary:

  • 2016 – 5.8% increase
  • 2017 – 4.9% decrease
  • 2018 – 10.6% decrease (the lowest number of divorces since 1971)
  • 2019 – 18.4% increase

Population changes can impact the figures. More people could well mean more divorces but the age groups involved in those trends may tell a more nuanced story. The figures are also influenced by historic marriage rates. Put simply, if fewer people marry in the first place there is likely to be a corresponding reduction in the number of divorces downstream. Very long term trends around social attitudes to relationships, marriage and marriage breakdown play a role that might be difficult discern from a single point in time.

Administrative practices within the court service (HMCTS) can impact the distribution of completed divorces between individual calendar years. For example between 2018 and 2019, there was an 18.4% increase in the number of completed divorces, partially attributable to the clearing of backlogs by regional divorce centres. When looked at in the context of increases and decreases in the surrounding years, the apparent trend feels far less dramatic.

There can also be differences caused by anticipated changes in the law.

Is there anything special about 2020?

Yes. 2020 saw the lives of most of the world’s population turned upside down. The UK went into a national lockdown on 23 March 2020. This might be playing a role in this year’s decrease.

However, few divorces are completed in less than six months from the date court proceedings are begun, which is often many weeks or months after the decision to end a relationship is taken. Add to that the fact that many couples delay finalising their divorce until financial matters have been resolved. I would say that any “pandemic effect” impacting on individual relationships may not be discernible until at least the 2021 figures. We also don’t know whether this would result in the weakening or strengthening of relationships.

The Divorce Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 provides for no-fault divorce. Although the law was passed in 2020, it was not set to come into force until autumn 2021, a date that was further delayed until the current implementation date of 6 April 2022. Historically, changes that make the actual divorce process easier tend to result in a reduction in the divorces immediately before the change and an increase thereafter, attributable to pent up demand. This might have played a small part in reducing the number of divorces in 2020 but few solicitors will have been advising clients to delay that early, particularly with an uncertain implementation date and the memory of the failed 1996 divorce reform at the back of some minds.

Disruption caused by the sudden change to remote working within the court service may have delayed the completion of some cases. Set against that, 2020 saw increased uptake of online divorce, which almost universally results in a speedier process.

Whichever way you look at it, any given annual increase or decrease is difficult to explain and the reasons may not apparent without careful analysis of longer term trends.


Divorce statistics changes and many factors influence that. The sociological fallout from the pandemic will take many years to come into focus, particularly as it is not over yet.

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