Divorce and Social Change Timeline

The process of divorce has been around for hundreds of years in England and Wales. In this time, however, it has changed significantly. It has moved with the times, evolving as changes in social attitudes have helped to shape the development of family law.

The history of divorce in England and Wales is tied to this development, including the changing role of women in society and the recognition of same sex relationships. Our interactive infographic details the most important events, changes and developments concerning divorce and social change over the past few hundred years.

Divorce can be complicated, and it is always recommended you seek the advice of expert legal professionals to help you through the process. Call JMW today on 0800 652 5577 or complete our online enquiry form. For more information about our services, click here.

Explore our Timeline of Divorce amid Social Change in England and Wales below:

A timeline of divorce

Amid Social Change in England and Wales

The development of family law in England and Wales runs in parallel with changes in social attitudes, particularly in relation to the role of women within society and the recognition of same sex relationships. It is also a story linked with the rise of property ownership and the growth of the middle classes. Here, we look back at the history of divorce in England and Wales.

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  • Before 1857
  • Ecclesiastical (church) courts could grant an annulment, or a divorce a mensa et thoro (divorce from bed and board)

    Divorce from bed and board was a legal separation that allowed spouses to live apart, but they were not permitted to remarry. The laws of the church courts had evolved out of the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church.

    From around 1700, the only alternative to this procedure was to obtain a private Act of Parliament. This was a long and expensive procedure denied to all but a handful of powerful individuals.

  • 1837

    Queen Victoria ascends to the throne

  • 1838

    Publication of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

    Abolition of slavery in the British Empire

  • 1839
  • The Custody of Infants Act 1839 reformed the law relating to the custody of minor children upon the breakdown of a marriage

    Before this Act, custody was automatically granted to the children's father. The Act provided that women could apply for custody of their children aged up to seven and apply for access to them thereafter, provided the mother had not committed adultery.

    Since this early reform, the law has developed to the point where the courts seek to promote the active involvement of both parents (and, where appropriate, significant adults who are not parents) in the upbringing of a child, provided this would not put the child at risk.

  • 1854

    Britain enters the Crimean War

  • 1856

    End of the Crimean War

  • 1857
  • With the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, the ability to dissolve marriages passed from the ecclesiastical courts to the newly-created Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes

    This reform was part of a broader modernisation of the English legal system. The number of divorces increased substantially, but could still be counted in the hundreds.

    Men and women were treated differently. While a man only had to prove his wife's adultery to obtain a divorce, a woman had to prove that her husband had committed adultery and that there was some aggravating factor present, such as cruelty, rape, desertion, incest or bigamy. Both men and women had to prove there had been no collusion or "condonation" (e.g. if the party suing for divorce had forgiven their spouse's infidelity).

    Over the years, separations came to be granted on grounds such as cruelty and incurable drunkenness.

  • 1861

    Death of Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert

  • 1867

    The second Reform Act doubles the number of people (males only) eligible to vote

  • 1870-1893
  • A series of Married Women's Property Acts began to do away with the idea that a married woman was under the guardianship of her husband and had no separate legal identity

    Prior to these pieces of legislation, everything a married woman owned or earned automatically became the property of her husband, subject to a handful of exceptions. In contrast, single women and widows could own property and enter into contracts in their own right.

  • 1900

    Foundation of the Labour Party

  • 1901

    Death of Queen Victoria and succession of Edward VII

  • 1910

    Death of King Edward VII and succession of George V

  • 1912

    Sinking of the Titanic

  • 1914

    First World War begins

  • 1918

    First World War ends

  • 1918
  • Women over 30 who met specified property conditions and all men over 21 (prior to this certain conditions had applied to men as well) became eligible to vote

  • 1919

    Lady Astor is the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament

  • 1923
  • The requirement for women to prove an aggravating factor in addition to adultery in order to obtain a divorce was dropped

  • 1927

    Creation of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

  • 1928

    Discovery of penicillin

  • 1928
  • Women over the age of 21 became eligible to vote

  • 1929

    The Wall Street Crash sparks the Great Depression

  • 1929

    First BBC transmission of experimental "television"

  • 1936

    Death of George V and succession of Edward VIII

  • 1936

    Abdication crisis leads to the succession to the throne of Edward's brother, Albert, (George VI)

  • 1937
  • The Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 allowed divorces to be granted on the basis of cruelty, "incurable insanity" or two years' desertion as well as adultery

    This reform greatly extended the availability of divorce for people from all walks of life. However, the financial provision available upon divorce had not evolved much since the 1857 reforms. The main gap was the court's inability to redistribute capital between the parties. The courts were entitled to take into account the behaviour of the parties when considering what financial provision to make.

  • 1939

    Second World War begins

  • 1940

    Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister

  • 1945

    Second World War ends

  • 1948

    Foundation of the NHS

  • 1952

    Death of George VI and succession of Elizabeth II

  • 1967

    Legalisation of homosexuality and introduction of legal abortion

  • 1971
  • The coming into force of the Divorce Reform Act 1969 gave birth to divorce law as we know it today

    The main innovation was the introduction of true no-fault options for obtaining a divorce: two years' separation with consent or five years' separation where there is no consent.

    During the 1970s a "special procedure" was developed that allowed divorcing couples to proceed without the need to give evidence or attend court if the case was uncontested. Although the procedure has been modified and rebranded over the years, the fundamental process remains the same today.

  • 1973
  • The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 is the backbone of the current divorce law and financial regime in place today

    The Act and subsequent amendments set out how the courts must approach applications for financial provision.

  • 1979

    Election of first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher

  • 1982

    Falklands War

  • 1984
  • The Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1984 placed a duty upon the courts to attempt to bring to an end the financial ties and obligations between a divorcing couple either at the point of divorce or at a later date

    This was provided that this could be achieved without creating undue hardship for either party. This became known as the duty to consider a "clean break".

  • 1989

    Invention of the "World Wide Web"

  • 1993
  • The Child Support Agency was launched, taking almost all child maintenance cases out of the jurisdiction of the courts

    This introduced an arithmetic rather than discretionary approach to all but a small minority of child maintenance cases. Throughout its history, the CSA has been dogged by criticism and, since 2012 it has been in the process of being replaced by the Child Maintenance Service.

  • 1997

    Death of Diana, Princess of Wales

  • 2000
  • The case of White v White was decided by the House of Lords, then the highest court in the land

    The case established that there should be no discrimination between financial and non-financial contributions, and that financial orders should be made taking into account a "yardstick of equality".

  • 2001

    9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon

  • 2001

    US-led invasion of Afghanistan

  • 2003

    US-led invasion of Iraq

  • 2005

    Terrorist attacks on London transport network

  • 2005
  • The first civil partnership ceremonies took place in the UK

    Civil partnerships granted same sex couples equivalent rights to married couples in almost all situations. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 provided a framework for the dissolution and annulment of civil partnerships and put in place an identical regime for financial provision.

    Civil partnerships are still available as an option for same sex but not opposite sex couples.

  • 2006
  • The cases of Miller v Miller and McFarlane v McFarlane were decided by the House of Lords

    These cases remain the leading source of guidance in the area of matrimonial finance. The cases highlighted the need for "fairness" when dealing with the financial consequences of divorce. There is no statutory starting point of a 50/50 division, but if the court's discretionary exercise results in an outcome other than equal division, there needs to be cogent reasons for this.

  • 2007

    Run on the Northern Rock bank marks the first major UK episode in the sub-prime mortgage crisis

  • 2008

    UK government bails out major banks as the world financial crisis hits Britain

  • 2014
  • The first same sex marriages took place in the United Kingdom

    Couples in existing civil partnerships became able to convert their partnership to a marriage by following a simple administrative procedure.

  • 2015
  • Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship becomes a criminal offence.

    The Supreme Court of the United States determines that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry and Irish voters back extension of marriage to same-sex couples by an overwhelming majority.

  • 2016

    The UK votes to leave the European Union

  • 2017

    Allegations of sexual abuse against film producer Harvey Weinstein leads to the #MeToo movement

  • 2018
  • Owens vs Owens is decided by the Supreme Court.

    Mrs Owens loses her bid for a divorce on the basis of her husband’s behaviour. Widespread dissatisfaction with the existing law, highlighted by the case, ultimately leads to the introduction of a no-fault divorce law, following decades of campaigning

  • 2018

    The world marks the centenary of the ending of the First World War

  • 2019
  • Opposite sex couples join their same-sex counterparts and can choose between marriage or civil partnership.

    The first ceremonies take place on 31st December, including that of Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan whose legal challenge prompted the change in the law.

  • 2019

    Boris Johnson becomes UK Prime Minister and a few months later wins a parliamentary majority following the General Election

  • 2020
  • Passing of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 creates the legal framework for no-fault divorce and civil partnership dissolution, expected to come into force towards the end of 2021

  • 2020

    The UK leaves the European Union on 31st January

  • 2020

    Coronavirus pandemic

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