1. Introduction

We produce demographic statistics on divorces taking place in England and Wales, which are published under the National Statistics logo, the designation guaranteeing that those outputs have been produced to high professional standards set out in the Code of Practice for Statistics and have been produced free from any political interference.

Divorces taking place in England and Wales are recorded by the courts onto the HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s (HMCTS) FamilyMan case management system and sent to us electronically for the production and analysis of statistics.

Figures represent both divorces and annulments that took place in England and Wales; a marriage is dissolved, following a petition for divorce and the granting of a decree absolute, or annulled, following a petition for nullity and the awarding of a decree of nullity (see Glossary).

Divorce statistics do not include married couples who separate, but do not divorce.

Divorces where the marriage took place abroad are included provided the marriage was legally recognised in the UK and one of the parties had a permanent home in England and Wales.

The Divorces Quality and Methodology Information report contains important information on:

  • the strengths and limitations of the data and how it compares with related data

  • uses and users of the data

  • how the output was created

  • the quality of the output including the accuracy of the data

In 2016, the format of annual divorce publications changed (2014 data year onwards). We now publish a selection of summary datasets, which provide an extensive time series for comparison. Alongside these, we also publish explorable datasets, which can be used to obtain more detailed statistics for a particular calendar year. A consultation, Understanding user requirements for marriage, divorce and civil partnership statistics given the introduction of marriages of same-sex couples, was published in October 2013. The response to this consultation, published in April 2014, detailed these changes.

Prior to the 2014 data year, divorce statistics were published as a set of packages (more information relating to each package is available in the “metadata” tab at the front of the data tables):

Comparable statistics for England and Wales for earlier years are published as follows:

  • from 1995 to 2007 in Marriage, divorce and adoption statistics (series FM2)

  • from 1974 to 1994 in the annual reference volume Marriage and Divorce Statistics (series FM2)

  • prior to 1974 in the Registrar General’s Statistical Review of England and Wales

Divorce statistics for England and Wales from 1858 (the first year during which a decree of divorce could be petitioned for and granted in a civil court within England and Wales) up to 1983 are published in the volume Marriage and Divorce Statistics (Series FM2 Number 16).

Annual divorce statistics for the UK and its constituent countries can be found in the Vital statistics: population and health reference tables. Scottish Government provides divorce statistics for Scotland. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency provides divorce statistics for Northern Ireland.

Divorce statistics on case progression are available from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in Family court statistics quarterly. MoJ analyses divorce data electronically through the HMCTS FamilyMan system.

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2. Legislation

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 was an Act of Parliament passed by the UK government. The Act reformed the law on divorce, moving litigation from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the civil courts and widening the availability of divorce.

The Divorce Reform Act 1969 came into effect in England and Wales on 1 January 1971. The Act, consolidated in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, made it possible for divorce to be petitioned for on the couple’s separation. The Act attempted to remove the concepts of the guilty party and the matrimonial offence by introducing a single ground for divorce – the irretrievable breakdown of marriage. Such a breakdown can be established by the petitioner proving one or more of five facts; the first three of which – adultery, unreasonable behaviour and desertion – are the former matrimonial offences. The two separation criteria were introduced for the first time by the Act – allowing divorce either by mutual consent or on the application of the petitioner alone.

The Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 came into effect in England and Wales on 12 October 1984. The Act made two changes, the first replaced the discretionary time bar (minimum time interval between the date of marriage and being able to file a petition for divorce) of three years by an absolute time bar of one year. No petition can now be filed within the first year of marriage. The second change meant the Act no longer required courts to try to place the divorced spouses in the financial position they would have enjoyed, had the marriage not broken down.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 enabled same-sex couples in England and Wales to marry from 29 March 2014. It also has several related provisions, including for those in a civil partnership to convert that relationship to a marriage if they choose to do so and provisions that will enable a person to change their legal gender without ending their existing marriage. These provisions came into force on 10 December 2014. The Act does not remove the availability of civil partnerships for same-sex couples. The first divorces recorded between same-sex couples in England and Wales were in 2015.

The Children and Families Act 2014 (13 March 2014) included provisions to streamline court processes in proceedings for a decree of divorce, nullity of marriage, or judicial separation (or, in relation to a civil partnership, for a dissolution, nullity or separation order) by removing the requirement for the court to consider whether it should exercise any of its powers under the Children Act 1989. Arrangements for children can be decided at any time through separate proceedings under the Children Act 1989.

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3. Information collected and derived

Since 2013, divorce data have been extracted from HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s (HMCTS) FamilyMan case management system and sent to us electronically in an annual file. From the 2015 data year, we moved to a monthly receipt of electronic divorce data for quality assurance. These data were received three months after the month end. From the 2018 data year, data are now received 15 days after the end of the month. A series of checks are performed on the data received and any queries addressed. The final annual dataset is received three months after the year end.

Prior to the 2013 data year, divorce statistics for England and Wales were derived from data provided on the D105 form used to record decree absolutes. These paper forms were sent to us by the courts.

The following is a summary of the data analysed in the tables.

Supplied by petitioner and respondent:

  • date of marriage

  • age at marriage (in years)

  • marital status at marriage

Supplied by the court:

  • date petition filed and date of decree absolute

  • facts proven and class(es) of decree

  • dissolution type (same-sex couple or opposite-sex couple) – this has been supplied since 2014 following the introduction of marriages of same-sex couples

Information derived:

  • duration of marriage to decree absolute: derived from date of marriage and date of decree absolute

  • age at divorce: this is derived from age at marriage and duration of marriage – from this an age (at last birthday) at the date of divorce is derived

Since 2014, it has not been mandatory for couples divorcing to provide details of children – a consequence of the Children and Families Act 2012. Following an assessment of data quality, statistics relating to children of divorcing couples were discontinued from 2015 onwards. Data on children have not been recorded on the divorce application since August 2017.

Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has responsibility for policy and legislation on divorces. Demographic information collected by HMCTS is analysed and published by us. MoJ relies on these analyses to inform policy, financial and workload decisions.

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4. Accuracy of information

The information on the divorce form is supplied by the petitioner and respondent in fulfilling the legal requirements for filing a petition. Since the information is required for a legal process, it may be presumed that the quality of the data is good, especially as the petitioner must swear under oath (an affidavit) that the information supplied is correct. There is no routine independent statistical verification of the data, but editing checks are carried out to detect clerical, coding and keying errors.

We conduct quality assurance tasks throughout the year on the dataset in preparation for the release of annual figures. These include completeness checks, which consider whether any records may be missing, and inconsistency checks within the dataset to ensure minimal internal errors.

During the quality assurance of the annual dataset, further checks are carried out, including frequency checks, comparisons with previous year’s data, checks for duplicates as well as comparisons with the number of divorces reported by Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

The number of divorces, as indicated by Office for National Statistics (ONS) and MoJ statistics, while similar, do not match exactly. From the 2013 data year, we have compiled divorce statistics from electronic extracts of divorces taken directly from the FamilyMan system used by the courts. This has helped to minimise the difference between the two sets of statistics, however, some differences remain because we do not count precisely the same cases. For example:

  • ONS divorce figures include annulments while MoJ figures do not; the number of annulments in 2017 published by MoJ was 332

  • since 2007, divorce figures published by MoJ have included dissolutions of civil partnerships, which are not included in our figures; the number of civil partnership dissolutions in 2017 published by ONS was 1,217

Using figures that are as comparable as possible for 2017 (totals including annulments and civil partnership dissolutions) would result in figures of 103,224 and 103,230 being reported by ONS and MoJ respectively, a difference of only 6 (0.01%). These are likely to be due to differences in the date when the data are extracted.

Prior to the 2013 data year, some other differences also existed from the way data were collected and processed. These include:

  • differences in the number of late divorce records excluded from both MoJ and ONS annual datasets

  • differences in the process to remove duplicate records

  • differences between the number of records entered onto the FamilyMan system and the number of paper records received by ONS from courts

In June 2012, ONS and MoJ published a joint statement on the differences between these figures that existed at the time and worked closely together to reconcile the two sets of statistics as far as possible.

Prior to the 2013 data year, when divorce records began to be received electronically, each year a certain number of divorces were not included in the published figures. This was because the decree absolute paper forms were received later than the date on which the annual dataset was taken. Table 1 shows the difference between the number of divorces stored on our database and the number included in our publications each year for 2000 to 2012. Although this meant that some divorces were not included in the statistics, it was a compromise that had to be taken to publish timely data. The electronic receipt of data means that almost all divorces in a year are now received in time for our annual publication.

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5. Missing information and corrections

Prior to the 2014 data year, in cases where one or more of the items of information collected was found to be missing, the procedure adopted was as follows:

  • age at marriage: imputed using a series of look-up tables, depending on whether the age of one or both parties was missing

  • marital status at marriage: bridegrooms were assumed to be single men who have never been married and brides were assumed to be single women who have never been married

  • date of marriage: was very rarely missing; Tables 2a and 2b show the number of ages at divorce that are not stated because date of marriage was missing or incomplete

The level of imputation for age at marriage and marital status at marriage increased between 2003 and 2013. During the divorce process these fields are taken from the marriage certificate supplied by the petitioner. Some marriage certificates relating to marriages that took place outside of England and Wales do not contain these variables. Marital status and age at marriage are also not mandatory fields in the divorce process and consequently are not always collected by the courts. Data have not been imputed for 2014 data onwards – not stated categories have been added to published tables instead.

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6. Coverage

The divorces analysed are decrees of dissolutions and annulments of marriage granted in England and Wales in each calendar year. Late notifications of divorces for 2012 and earlier years are not included in annual tables, but are retained on our database (see Table 1).

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7. Base populations

The population figures used to calculate rates are Population estimates by marital status for England and Wales.

Following a consultation surrounding the population estimates by marital status in summer 2014, changes were made to the methodology used to produce the estimates for England and Wales for the years 2002 onwards. The method now uses the marital status distribution from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and applies this to published population estimates (by five-year age group and sex) for England and Wales. Annex B in the consultation response document (PDF, 320KB) provides more information on the methodology. Population estimates by marital status for the years 2002 to 2010 were revised and published in July 2015 alongside new population estimates by marital status for the years 2011 to 2014. Because of the change in the methodology, revised divorce rates for England and Wales for 2002 to 2012 were published in November 2015.

The differences resulting from the change in methodology are explained in the bulletin Population estimates by marital status and living arrangements – England and Wales, 2002 to 2014 and within the associated tables.

The population estimates used are the most up-to-date when rates are published. The population estimates used to calculate rates are detailed alongside the published tables. The Population estimates by marital status and living arrangements Quality and Methodology Information report provides more detail on the methodology. Any revisions to divorce rates resulting from revisions to the population estimates by marital status are footnoted on affected tables.

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8. Analyses by area

We are unable to produce divorce statistics by area of residence – divorce data provided to us by the courts does not contain information on the area of residence of the parties. Since 2018, Family court statistics quarterly published by Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has included a csv file containing petitioner’s local authority of usual residence. Information on the location of the court is also available from Family court statistics quarterly; however, court location does not accurately reflect where parties lived either before or after separation; divorce courts were also centralised in 2015 to 11 main divorce centres throughout England and Wales.

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9. Rates

Rates have been calculated using the most appropriate estimates of the population.

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10. Cohort analyses

Most divorce statistics are presented based on the calendar year in which the divorce was granted. An alternative approach is to present divorce statistics based on the year of marriage or the year of birth. In this case, a cohort is a group of people either married in the same year or born in the same year. Such tables can provide estimates of the proportion of people married or born in a particular year who divorce by a particular anniversary or age.

Proportions of men and women who had ever divorced by age and birth cohort (Tables 7a and 7b)

Tables 7a and 7b: Proportions of men and women who had ever divorced by age and birth cohort

Using males (Table 7a) as an example, the numbers of divorces each year to men of each age are combined with mid-year population estimates for males by age to estimate the proportion of men born in each year who have ever divorced by each birthday. A standard life table methodology is used to calculate probabilities of divorce, which are then applied to a hypothetical stationary population. This method enables the proportion ever divorced by each exact birthday to be estimated. By taking into account the latest population estimates rather than simply the number of men born in a particular year, it also takes into account changes in the sizes of cohorts since birth due to death and migration. Tables 7a and 7b were formerly Tables 3a and 3b of the Age at marriage, duration of marriage and cohort analyses divorce package.

From our 2015 Divorces publication onwards, figures are based on both divorces of opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples.

Cumulative percentage of marriages ending in divorce by year of marriage and by anniversary (Table 6)

Table 6: Cumulative percentage of marriages ending in divorce by year of marriage and by anniversary

To produce Table 6, the number of marriages in a given year is used as the denominator and the numbers of divorces in subsequent years to couples married in the original year are used as the numerators. Duration of marriage is estimated by differencing the year and month of marriage and the year and month of divorce, as this gives a more precise measure of duration than just differencing the years.

For example, the proportion of marriages in 1990 ending in divorce up to the fifth anniversary is calculated as follows:

  • the number of couples divorcing in England and Wales between 1990 and 1995 who married in 1990 and who had not reached their fifth anniversary before they divorced

divided by:

  • the total number of couples marrying in England and Wales during 1990

Table 6 is based on several assumptions that should be borne in mind when using the figures.

Couples marry in the country in which they are resident (for example, there are no marriages abroad or in Scotland or Northern Ireland by couples resident in England and Wales and no marriages in England and Wales to non-residents). In practice, the estimated number of marriages abroad or in the rest of the UK by couples resident in England and Wales has exceeded the estimated number of marriages to non-residents over the past decade. Marriages occurring abroad are taken into account in population estimates by marital status but not in this cohort table, as estimated divorces abroad are not available. This could lead to over-estimation of the proportion of marriages ending in divorce, as couples marrying abroad would be included in the divorce figures if they divorce, but would not be included in the marriage figures.

Zero migration to and from England and Wales, for example, those resident in England and Wales have not emigrated since marrying; and no married couples migrate to England and Wales and then divorce in England and Wales.

A marriage can only end in divorce or by the death of one of the partners. Table 6 does not take into account that some marriages have ended by death and are therefore no longer at risk of ending in divorce. This will have most impact at the longer marriage durations, where spouses are likely to be older. For example, if 25% of couples marrying in a particular year had divorced by 40 years later, that does not imply that 75% are still married, as a proportion of individuals will have been widowed.

From 2014 onwards, figures are based on both marriages and divorces of opposite-sex and same-sex couples. We continue to monitor the number of marriages of same-sex couples that end in divorce to assess whether we are able to produce separate tables showing the percentage of marriages that end in divorce for opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples.

Table 6 was formerly Table 2 of the Age at marriage, duration of marriage and cohort analyses divorce package.

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11. Cumulative percentage of marriages ending in divorce

The cumulative percentage of marriages ending in divorce or death by anniversary is a table that we periodically produce. The table uses mortality and divorce rates for a single calendar year to produce a single figure for the percentage of marriages ending in divorce. The most recent version of the table was published in 2013. The table was produced using 2010 mortality and divorce rates. A similar table using 2005 rates is available.

This period table takes divorce rates at all years of marriage from a calendar year of divorces data and provides a single figure summarising the proportion of marriages ending in divorce for that calendar year. The table differs from cohort Table 2 published annually, which uses all years of marriage and divorce data available and provides the proportion of marriages ending in divorce by year of marriage.

A complex method was used to calculate the period table showing the cumulative percentage of marriages ending in divorce. Firstly, the married population by duration of marriage was calculated for 2010. This involves the following stages:

  1. Obtain the married population by sex and single year of age from published 2001 mid-year marital status estimates. The 2001 mid-year estimates are the closest to the 2001 Census base and should therefore be the best estimate of the population by marital status. Then allocate the 2001 married population to the year they married according to the number of marriages that occurred in each year before 2001 (by sex and age). This creates a married population for mid-2001 by year of marriage (that can therefore be presented by duration of marriage).

  2. This married population is then moved on one year at a time from 2002 to 2010 by:

    • ageing the married population on by one year, each year; for example, a married person aged 16 years in 2001 would be 17 years in 2002, 18 years in 2003 and so on
    • adding marriages and removing divorces for each year since 2001 according to the year they took place, the age and sex of such people
    • allocating marriages ending due to death across all years of marriage according to the married population distribution (by sex and age)

This method does not account for migration or marriages abroad since 2001. The result is a married population for 2010 by sex, age and year of marriage, which is then converted to duration of marriage. Because we know the year a person married, we know how long they have been married. This married population is the denominator for the table.

A multi-decrement life table technique is then used to analyse the proportion of marriages ending in divorce and death. This is a table for a hypothetical population living their life in 2010. Unlike a standard mortality life table, which is calculated by age, this life table uses different durations of marriage (or anniversaries, see column A in the table). There are two ways that a married individual can leave the married population: divorce or death, because the life table assumes no migration. The probability of either event happening, columns B and C, is calculated using 2010 divorce and mortality data as the numerator. The denominator for this calculation is the 2010 married population.

For divorce, the duration of marriage is calculated using the date of marriage and date of divorce. For death, both the person dying and the surviving partner are considered because neither individual remains in the married population (as one is deceased and the other becomes widowed). As outlined previously, an age-sex structure is calculated for each year of marriage. Age-sex specific death rates are then used to calculate death rates by each year of marriage for 2010.

Given a starting number of 100,000 marriages, column D in the table shows the number of marriages that will survive to the stated anniversary. Columns E and F show the number that will end in divorce or death before the next anniversary. This then allows the calculation in columns G and H of the cumulative percentage of marriages ended before the next anniversary, and column I, which shows the cumulative percentage of marriages surviving. Finally, column J shows the average number of years of life of marriage remaining. For example, couples celebrating their 30th anniversary can expect to be married, on average, for a further 22 years. This assumes that divorce and mortality rates remain unchanged from 2010.

It is also important to note that civil partnerships are not included in the previous figures. Also, the results of the 2011 Census (such as the age and sex distribution of the married population) have not been incorporated into the calculations.

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13. Further information

Special extracts and tabulations of divorces data for England and Wales are available to order (subject to legal frameworks, disclosure control, resources and the ONS charging policy, where appropriate). Enquiries should be made to Vital Statistics Outputs Branch via email to vsob@ons.gov.uk or by telephone to +44 (0)1329 444110. User requested data will be made publicly available.

We welcome your feedback on the content, format and relevance of this release. Please send feedback via email to vsob@ons.gov.uk.

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14. Glossary

Annulment

An annulment of marriage occurs following a successful petition for nullity. It declares that the marriage itself is void (that no valid marriage ever existed) or voidable (was legal at time of registration but is no longer legal).

Decree absolute

Granted upon a dissolution of marriage, following a petition for divorce, a decree absolute ends a valid marriage. See Dissolution.

Decree nisi

Following the grounds for divorce being proven, the district judge grants a decree nisi as a provisional measure. Then, six weeks later, the petitioner can apply for a decree absolute.

Decree of nullity

Granted upon an annulment of marriage following a petition for nullity, a decree of nullity declares that the marriage itself is void and that no valid marriage ever existed. See Annulment.

Dissolution

A dissolution of marriage occurs following a successful petition for divorce and ends a valid marriage. Dissolution of marriage covers annulments and decree absolutes.

Facts proven

A petitioner must prove one or more of five facts (adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion and separation, either with or without consent of the respondent) to establish the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS)

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice and is responsible for the running of most of the courts and tribunals in England and Wales. HMCTS supplies information on divorces to ONS.

Judicial separation

This is an alternative to divorce and does not dissolve the marriage, but absolves the parties from the obligation to live together. This procedure might, for example, be used if religious beliefs forbid or discourage divorce.

Ministry of Justice (MoJ)

Following constitutional reforms, the Ministry of Justice was created on 9 May 2007. It is responsible, among other things, for the administration of the court system in England and Wales through the Court Service.

UK Statistics Authority Code of Practice for Statistics

The principles and protocols followed and upheld by all those involved in producing National Statistics.

ONS

Since 1 April 2008, Office for National Statistics (ONS) is the executive office of the UK Statistics Authority.

Petitioner

The person seeking a dissolution or annulment.

Respondent

The person to whom a petition for divorce has been served.

VSOB

Vital Statistics Outputs Branch within ONS.

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Contact details for this Methodology

Nicola Haines
vsob@ons.gov.uk
Telephone: +44 (0)1329 444110