Emma Morris Managing Associate
Divorce, relocation and Covid-19
Since March 2020, many articles have reported on the perceived increase in divorce rates during the Covid pandemic. Only time will tell if this proves to be correct and if the record-breaking 2019 figure of 108,421 divorces for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples in the UK is surpassed.
Nevertheless, it takes little imagination to see how a relationship already under pressure may break down with the addition of reduced finances, job loss, illness, death of loved ones, lack of space and homeschooling. Emma Morris, Managing Associate and Family Law specialist discusses the last 12 months and the impact Covid-19 has had on our personal lives.
Marriages quickly started to strain during the first lockdown, which was evidenced by an increase in legal enquiries for divorce and/or separation in the USA and European countries, which spiked between days 15 and 20 of the lockdown. The enquiries from couples who had been married for a short period were most likely to lead to divorce. In the US, the period March to June 2020 saw an increase in Divorce Petitions issued of 34% over the same period in 2019.
The trend continued and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) in England, found that the first weekend in September, traditionally always a busy period, saw 2,200 online enquiries - an increase of 25% in the same period in 2019. By the time the second lockdown was imposed, online interest had peaked much earlier and was followed through to solicitor enquiries and Divorce Petitions being issued.
For many, the routines of daily life, travelling to work, working in an environment away from home, socialising with colleagues after work all mask the underlying problems within a marriage. Practicalities of daily life have to take precedence and there are outlets to vent any frustration available, whether that be seeing friends or colleagues and socialising away from home.
Ronen Stilman, Psychotherapist commented in one of his recent articles, “the pandemic has taken away well-established routines that offered comfort, stability and rhythm without those there are limited opportunities to find other forms of support or stimulation”.
The impact on children
In addition to the lack of schooling and socialising, the impact of the pandemic on children has multiple layers. Understandably as a result, parent’s anxieties are heightened and this has often led to disputes in relation to children moving between homes especially ones where other children and new partners are residing. With care, those issues can generally be mediated.
The more complex scenarios involve a parent who wishes to use the pandemic as a reason to thwart contact between a child and the non-resident parent. Children of primary workers or those known to have specific needs have benefited by being able to continue with school. That in turn has provided an opportunity for the crossover in contact between one parent and another.
However, for those who do not fall into that category, and where a parent is determined to thwart contact, there has been a perfect storm.
Face-to-face mediation has been extremely limited for long periods of time and the Courts are very overstretched with a significant number of cases having to be conducted online.
One of the more tragic outcomes has been the significant rise in domestic violence. It is an unfortunate fact that when money is tighter and there has been a change of household roles and routines there will be added stress levels. This often tends to highlight the difficulties in those already living in domestic violence situations.
Accessing help is made harder during lockdown but there have been significant efforts made to heighten awareness in this including pharmacies now offering safe refuge. Victims of abuse can use the code word ANI to discreetly signal that help is required. We urge anyone experiencing domestic violence to call The Freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge on 0808 2000 247 at any time, day or night. The staff will offer confidential, non-judgemental information and support.
Relocation, relocation, relocation
Much media coverage has been given to the rural relocation consequence of this pandemic. There has been an influx of people wishing to move to the country and areas such as Devon and Cornwall have seen a significant rise in house sales, 6.4% up on last year through to September 2020.
This is down to a number of factors; the ability to work from home becoming a reality for some for the first time, the need for space (detached house sales up 6.7%) or a re-evaluation of priorities relating to family ties and proximity generally. However, for some it is also a result of the decision to divorce/separate and those numbers should not be forgotten.
A recent Economist article points to three factors influencing this trend, namely, monetary policy (low-interest rates fixed for long period), fiscal policy, and a change in buyer's preference as being the main drivers. I would add that divorce/separation may well appear as a significant component within the third element when we see the figures for 2020 later this year. Whatever the answer, the Land Registry recorded 115,190 sales in November 2020 which is a staggering 19% up on November 2019 and that in some small or large part is attributable to divorces started at the beginning of the lockdown.
This trend is not just UK-wide. In Germany, house prices are 11% higher than the previous year. In South Korea and China, prices were increasing at such a rate that the authorities moved in to tighten restrictions on buyers. In China, it is well documented that this increase in house sales followed the increased curve of divorces obtained.
Covid restrictions may have led to a very unhappy home life for some people. However, a chance to re-evaluate coupled with a stamp duty holiday and low-interest rates have meant those lucky enough to be employed who have previously been delaying separation for financial reasons have this year been able to take that leap. Of course, it is right to note the reverse must also be true and those with businesses now in free fall have seen their asset value diminish and those with existing periodical payment commitments based on high incomes 12 months ago are queuing up at court seeking a variation.
However, the pandemic has affected you and your family we are here to support and advise you on your next steps. For more information, please get in touch with a member of our Family team.