In 2020, the number of divorces in England and Wales fell by 4.5% according to the Office for National Statistics. That figure was still not low: 103,592 decree absolutes were granted. But as with so much human activity during the pandemic, the impact of Covid-19 had far-reaching and unexpected consequences on many of those who were planning to divorce.
In the immediate aftermath of the government’s announcement of the first lockdown in March 2020, new divorce enquiries ground to a halt as couples and families struggled to determine what impact it would have on them. In fact, lockdown was a polarising event. Some found it to be a welcome pause of normal life: trading long hours in the office or on business trips for sustained quality time with their partners and children.
But for others, the enforced suspension of life outside the family home only served to highlight the underlying cracks in their relationships that had been too easily ignored thanks to distractions such as extramarital affairs and extended business trips. Not exempt from these pressures, the coping mechanisms of HNW individuals were arguably unsuited to “let’s try to make this work”.
Relationships break down for a variety of reasons. But in our experience, two elements commonly feature: the stick and the carrot. During lockdown, the stick became bigger and more brutal while the carrot – whether escaping the unbearable atmosphere at home or having a fling – disappeared.
We saw some couples having to sit out the pandemic away from their English family homes, in countries where they benefitted from more space and where daily life was less restricted. We also saw other couples who spent the entire lockdown apart in different homes and sometimes, in different countries.
By determining either to be together in a less stressful environment, or to be physically separated, thoughts of divorce could be put on the back burner as everyone anxiously waited to see how the pandemic would pan out. Meanwhile, some couples chose to leave England altogether during the pandemic, potentially undermining their claim to have legal ties with this jurisdiction, either in the context of divorce or otherwise.
For clients who were mid-divorce when the pandemic struck, the sudden impact of lockdown created new obstacles in progressing to decree absolute. There were three distinct problems.
First, the courts took time to accommodate to remote hearings, e-filing and the rest. Priority was understandably given to the most urgent cases, typically those involving children or domestic abuse. Although this was clearly the correct decision, it inevitably created a backlog on matters which were considered to be less urgent.
Second, lockdown created some degree of uncertainty for almost every business, albeit this was not always sustained. Market fluctuations caused some clients to adopt a notably cautious approach. They wanted to delay making decisions until it was much clearer how things would unfold. Hoping to depress their final bottom-line figures, others sought immediate valuations or revaluations of their assets. Inevitably, this led to settlements being held up as experts struggled to figure out exactly how to do their jobs in unprecedented circumstances.
The third problem was that the success rate of private settlement hearings (commonly known as Private FDRs) declined. Although they continued virtually during lockdown, the rates of settlement dropped significantly. Notably, the psychological factors that invariably underpin these hearings, often with much success, were absent. Compared to in-person negotiations, Zoom hearings may have minimised the apparent stakes to clients, making it easier to walk away from good deals.
The children of separated families were also affected during the pandemic. With good reason, parents often became more anxious than usual as opposing attitudes about lockdown restrictions created the perfect cocktail for disagreement. Almost uniquely, many HNW individuals were able to travel during lockdown, meaning that disputes over living arrangements involved not only which home a child might be in that night, but often, which country.
Some of our clients provide a good example. During the pandemic, we saw parents who wanted to relocate, either temporarily or permanently, to other countries. Meanwhile, others whose children lived elsewhere, wanted to fly them back and forth to see them in whatever country was then their home. In either scenario, already strained co-parenting relationships faced the added pressure of health concerns as well as testing and quarantine requirements.
Post-pandemic, a new normal has emerged, generating a multitude of questions for the immediate future. Will there be a spike in divorces as couples break free from the chains of lockdown? Will these divorces become uglier after two years of simmering resentment? Will a flood of couples return to the UK now that restrictions have almost vanished? Will parents approve of their children being vaccinated? Whatever the answers might be, the statistical dip of 2020 seems unlikely to be repeated.
Read Alex and Stacey’s article in Lawyer Monthly.