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Co-operative Divorces

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Getting a Divorce in the UK without Lawyers

Not many people realise that it is perfectly possible to get a divorce in the UK without lawyers.

Lawyers are there to represent your interests. But you may not actually need a lawyer if you can agree terms without too much in-fighting. This is particularly worth doing if there is not that much money to split between you. Why give most of it over to the legal profession?

Divorce is harder to manage without lawyers if there are children involved. It is still possible, but that situation is outside the scope of this entry.


The main thing is never to say or do the 'unforgivable thing' - whatever that may be in your particular case. It is easy to forget that someone who is causing you a lot of pain and grief is not necessarily doing it deliberately. They probably don't mean to punish you. But they are themselves dealing with their own pain and grief at the ending of your marriage and the loss of your future plans. So biting your tongue can save you thousands or even tens of thousands of pounds.

The second thing is to agree in principle on how to split things. If you have both had good incomes and separate finances this is relatively simple: Whoever bought something gets to keep it. You can come unexpectedly and very painfully unstuck with gifts though. So be prepared for that. CDs, photographs, and books are other pitfalls1.

Agree with each other to be fair, and to be willing to trade. You will have to come back to this principle again and again. It can help to have four lists:

  • His
  • Hers
  • To be discussed
  • To be disposed of

The stuff on the 'to be discussed' list can then be negotiated. Take your time, and regard it as a new start. It is amazing what you actually find you can leave behind, if you live without it for a while.


The four main areas where you need to be very careful are:

  • Children
  • Your house
  • Pensions
  • Tax

You need to be sure you are getting it right in each of these areas, and a joint visit to a lawyer may help.

Don't go to a lawyer individually unless you are prepared to feel pressurised into using lawyers for your divorce. They have to cover their own backs even if it is at the expense of your peace of mind; and one lawyer seen by one of you can sow mistrust in you both.

Mediated Settlements

If you find it difficult to agree on the details, consider getting a mediated settlement. This is similar to other forms of mediation. You both see a lawyer who specialises in family mediation; some lawyers will also have counsellors on hand if things get too heated. Neither of you can see the lawyer alone.

You agree how you wish to have things settled between you, and the lawyer advises you both on the law. The lawyer draws up an agreement, which you then put in front of individual lawyers.

At this point, your own lawyer will say 'but you could get this, and this, and this...', and it can take considerable will-power to say 'maybe I could, but on the other hand this is what we have agreed between us'.


In the UK one person has to initiate the divorce, and although the concept of a guilty party has gone, one person still technically divorces the other. Come to an agreement over who this should be.

At the moment in the UK, there is only one ground for divorce: the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. This can be demonstrated in one of the following ways:

  • Adultery
  • Unreasonable behaviour
  • Desertion
  • Separation with consent2
  • Separation without consent3

The most amicable of these grounds is separation after two years; and it may well be that by that time you have sorted out the practical and financial details anyway. On the other hand, adultery with an unnamed co-respondent provides a quicker route to divorce.

How to Get a Divorce

Contact your local Divorce Court and ask them for blank divorce papers, and any leaflets they may have.

  • Petition - Whichever one of you is initiating the divorce has to fill out the Divorce Petition. In this document you give the details of when and where you were married, and the grounds for your divorce. You also say whether or not there are children, and whether or not the court is to consider financial matters. You send this with the appropriate fees and paperwork to the court.

  • Response - The court issue a form to the Respondent. If you are the Respondent you fill out this form and return it. This form basically asks whether or not you agree to the divorce, and the details as given, and whether or not you wish the court to consider financial matters.

  • Decree Nisi - The court will issue a Decree Nisi, which is not your divorce. It provides a cooling off period during which appeals can be made.

  • Decree Absolute - This is your divorce paper. It is an incredibly unimpressive piece of paper; but it can still wrench the guts when it arrives in the post. It may help to have a good friend lined up to get drunk with that evening.

The whole process can take as little as 12 weeks, if you are both good at filling out forms, and if the court itself is speedy in its turnaround times.

Where to Get Advice

There are several books on the process of getting a divorce in the UK. Some of the books are very legalistic, others are more friendly. Try to browse through the one you choose before buying it; and it may help to get two copies of the same book, one each.

If you do choose a mediation service, or indeed a divorce lawyer, choose carefully. Ask friends whether or not they would recommend the ones they used.

Check out whether you are getting someone whose approach is 'All Men Are B******s' or conversely 'Let's Screw the Parasitic Bitch one Last Time', or whether you are getting someone who understands that you chose to marry someone you loved and respected, and that you still wish to be able to look back on your wedding day with a smile.

Be willing to live with the fact that you could have got more if you had used lawyers. Remind yourself that you'd have probably just paid it all over to them. But the pain and the bitterness saved can be well worth it.

1 Of course photographs can be re-printed or scanned, and there are always tapes and MP3 files for the CDs. But at the moment only a book is a book.2You must have lived apart for at least two years and the respondent must consent to the divorce.3You must have lived apart for at least five years, the respondent need not consent to be divorced.

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