The media today are full of stories of Rowan Atkinson’s divorce from his wife, Sunetra.
The versions in the press are identical, showing not only a common source, but also a common failure to apply any editorial oversight to the story.
The first version I read was in the Telegraph, so it is on that version that I shall comment.
The Telegraph’s headline reads, “Rowan Atkinson divorced in 65 seconds on grounds of his ‘unreasonable behaviour’”.
There are a few issues even with that headline, and the first is that the Atkinsons are not yet divorced, and won’t be for some months, so the headline is inaccurate on that ground alone.
Secondly, and to be pedantic, ‘unreasonable behaviour’ is not a ground for divorce, for which there is only the one ground of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.
Unreasonable behaviour is one of five ‘facts’ which may be adduced in evidence that the marriage has broken down irretrievably.
To be even more pedantic, ‘unreasonable behaviour’ is a misnomer: it is not the behaviour of the respondent spouse which must be shown to be ‘unreasonable’ but the expectation that the petitioner should remain in the marriage. Thus the behaviour the petitioner complains of may be entirely reasonable, but if she cannot endure continuing to be married as a result of it she has a case for divorce.
More worryingly, how do the media know which fact was relied on in the Atkinsons’ divorce? These matters are supposed to be confidential. The Telegraph refers to “divorce papers made public today”, which is a dreadful breach of confidentiality by someone.
The main thrust of this blog post, however, concerns those 65 seconds. That is the sort of timing which makes even a “quickie” divorce look tardy.
The reality, of course, is very different, and the headline is nonsense. What has happened is that the Atkinsons will have had the normal schedule of delays any other couple will experience. Fame and wealth cannot buy you efficiency in this system.
They have reached the point where the court confirms the decree nisi: the decree “unless”. This is largely a formality and the parties do not need to attend. Thus, in order to save court time, the courts deal with a batch of decrees at a time, and this particular session involved a batch of 26 divorces and took about 28 minutes.
The decree nisi is only the half way point. Sunetra, the petitioner, must now wait 6 weeks before applying for the decree absolute. Only when that is granted will the Atkinsons actually be divorced, and free to marry again. During that 6 week period they are advised to settle their financial arrangements, though, as the Telegraph admits in the final line of the article, that could take many more months.
The myth of the quickie divorce is a dangerous one, and press articles like this are misleading and irresponsible. A dissatisfied spouse looking for a swift and painless divorce will imagine that they can bypass the usual slow and expensive process. A brief Google search for “quickie divorce” will produce a list of online providers offering a divorce in “weeks” for as little as £37. The implication is that such companies have access to a procedure which high street solicitors and other companies such as Wikivorce can only dream of; that the whole process from getting in the petition to decree absolute can be accomplished in a few weeks, and for a very small outlay.
This, of course, is not the case. The fee only allows you to “initiate” a divorce, and provides you with the application forms which are free from your nearest divorce centre or to download from the Ministry of Justice website. It doesn’t cover any time with a solicitor, which is advisable given that 40% of petitions are incorrectly made out and have to be returned. It also doesn’t cover the court fee, which is currently £410 and due to rise soon to £550. The time estimate assumes the parties are completely in accord and there are no issues between them; it ignores the delay in processing petitions – which is typically around a month for divorce petitions and 2 months for a consent order, and the statutory delay between nisi and absolute.
There are problems with the “quickie” myth. Firstly, it sends petitioners to what may very well be the wrong resource for them. When disputed issues arise, as they will do, costs will rise rapidly. The best option for them is likely to be an alternative provider, like Wikivorce, which is much more realistic about the costs of its services, or a high-street firm.
Secondly, it creates entirely unrealistic expectations in the minds of litigants who, when their divorce starts to look as if it will take many months, start to hassle their provider with endless emails and telephone calls which, inevitably, only serve to push the costs up even higher.
Accurate reporting is an important step in fostering appropriate expectations in litigants and enabling them to access resources and services pertinent to their circumstances.