Over the years, divorce law in the UK has evolved into the legislation we are familiar with today. What started off as a process overseen by the Church has become part of the modern legal system.

Let’s take a look at the origins of divorce and how it has changed for men over time.


1533: Henry VIII v The Catholic ChurchHenry VIII - Small Image

King Henry VIII is famous for many reasons, including his wealth, his power, and, of course, his six wives. Back in 1533, only the Pope could grant a divorce, so the King of England battled with the Catholic Church to allow him to annul his marriage with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. He later went on to divorce his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, in 1540.


1670: The Introduction of Divorce

Divorce was officially introduced into English law in 1670. Men could apply for a divorce on the grounds of adultery or life-threatening treatment. It required an Act of Parliament and was a very expensive process, so it was only sought out by the very rich. Once the divorce was finalised, men kept all their property and money, and any legitimate children from the marriage remained with them.


Animated - Law Court - Small Image

1857: The Matrimonial Causes Act

This was the first divorce law for general application in the courts. The High Court in London was the only place in the UK that could grant divorces.

Men could petition for divorce if their wife had committed adultery. This could only be granted if the act could be proved. Women were now able to apply for divorce if they could prove an aggravating factor in the adultery, such as rape or incest.


War Time Image Representing Increase In Divorces

1914-1918: World War I

In the first decade of the 1900s, the number of marriages ending in divorce was one in 450.

However, World War I had a big impact on this figure. As husbands went to war, neither party knew if they would see each other again.

If they were lucky enough to be reunited, there were issues such as infidelity and illegitimate children to deal with.

The war changed people, and for some couples there was no going back. They simply weren’t the same people they had once been. As a result, divorce rates increased to previously unseen levels.


Justice - Animated Logo

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1923  

World War One also led to a reform in divorce law. The amendment to the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1923 put men and women on a more equal footing, allowing both parties to petition for a divorce if adultery could be proven.


World War II

Animated Image - Marriage ProposalThe number of marriages increased at the start of World War II, falling steadily throughout and then rising again at the end. However, many marriages broke down due to the war and its after-effects, causing a peak in divorces following World War II.


Divorce Reform Act 1969

Graph Showing Large Increase - Divorce RateDivorce rates were booming in 1969. In fact, 51,310 divorces were recorded that year. So it was no surprise when the Divorce Reform Act 1969 came into effect in 1971. This marked a significant shift in the family court system. Neither party had to prove that fault lay with the other, and as a result divorce rates increased dramatically.


Matrimonial Causes Act

Wedding Cake In Half With Bride & Groom SeperatedWith the number of divorces on the rise, it became clear that new legislation was needed.

Section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 contained an exhaustive list of factors to help determine financial claims resulting from divorce. In 1973, 106,003 couples divorced in the UK.


Children Act 1989

1989 - Ripped Up Family ImageThe introduction of the Children Act 1989 made it clear to the UK family courts that establishing what was in the child’s best interest during divorce proceedings was of paramount importance. But although the legislation was gender-neutral, many courts were not. In most cases, family courts decided to grant custody to the mother.


As divorces became more commonplace, so did the documentation of high-profile cases. Let’s take a look at the ones that changed history.


Heart Breaking - Small Image

White v White

The case involved farmer Martin White and his wife, Pamela. It resulted in a shift in the divorce process, making contributions from the breadwinner and homemaker equally valid.


2004 - Parlour v Parlour - Small

Parlour v Parlour

The Court of Appeal ruled that Karen Parlour had played a fundamental role in her ex-husband’s football career and stated that she was entitled to receive one-third of his future earnings.


2006 - Divorce CaseMcFarlane v McFarlane

Kenneth McFarlane was ordered to give his former wife £250,000 a year as well as their family home in London.


Divorced Couple In Heart Break Image - Small

Charman v Charman

John Charman lost his appeal in 2007 against paying his ex-wife £48 million in their divorce settlement. The insurance magnate was told that his argument that he should keep most of the pair’s money as he’d earned it was old-fashioned, which he deemed unfair.


Broken Piggy Bank - MoneyThe Recession

Many marriages were put under strain as a result of the recession. Financial stability and ‘jobs for life’ became a thing of the past. Many couples struggled to cope during the recession, and in 2008 121,708 divorces were recorded in the UK.


Heart Broken - Tilt Right - Small Image

Murphy v Murphy

William Murphy, a former UK banker, was left with £450,000 of his £3-million fortune following his divorce in 2009. The couple’s assets were split 65/35 in favour of Mrs Murphy.

Miller v Miller

Multi-millionaire fund manager Alan Miller’s 2009 appeal was dismissed, which obliged him to grant his ex-wife a £5-million settlement following their split after three years of marriage.


Fathers For Justice Small ImageChanges to the Children’s Act 1989

Before the amendment to the Children’s Act 1989, one in three children had no contact with their father and only 8% of single parents living with their children were fathers.

The update, deemed by many to be the most important change in the past 20 years, aims to give children from broken homes the chance to maintain a relationship with both parents.


2013 - Divorced Couple - Heart Break - SmallYoung v Young

In 2013, Michelle Young was awarded a £20-million sum after splitting up with her husband Scot Young. The pair separated in 2012 and Mrs Young filed for divorce in 2013, but the decree nisi was never made absolute. She claimed that she was entitled to half of the couple’s fortune as it had been accrued due to their partnership.

2013 - Split Heart - Divorce Case

Hohn v Cooper-Hohn

In 2014, financier Sir Chris Hohn made the headlines when he was ordered to pay out £337 million to his ex-wife Jamie Cooper-Hohn as part of their divorce settlement. Legal experts claim that this is the biggest divorce settlement ever seen in a British court.


Heart Break With Couple - Small Image

Vince v Wyatt

The Supreme Court reversed an earlier ruling this year and allowed Kathleen Wyatt to make a claim against her now wealthy ex-husband Dale Vince. The pair divorced
in 2012 before Wyatt had set up his business, but they had failed to agree a financial settlement. Wyatt can now proceed with her claim of £1.9 million in maintenance.

Divorce Facts You Might Not Know

  • The latest statistics estimate that 42% marriages will end in divorce
  • Almost half of divorces in 2012 occurred in the first 10 years of marriage according to ONS figures
  • 65% of these divorces were granted to women
  • 48% of couples divorcing had a least one child under the age of 16 living with the family
  • According to a recent ONS survey, in 2014 there were 2 million lone parents with dependent children in the UK. Women accounted for 91% of lone parents with dependent children, whereas fathers accounted for just 9%


As you can see from the timeline, the divorce process has evolved substantially over time into the practice used in our courts today. However, further improvements to the UK family law courts are still needed.

Take a look at Cordell & Cordell’s interactive version of our timeline of men’s divorce.

About Cordell & Cordell

At Cordell & Cordell, our Divorce Lawyers we focus on representing men facing divorce and all other family law issues. We’re dedicated to leveling the playing field in the UK family courts.

Get in touch today to find out how we can help you through this difficult time.


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