Divorce has always been a taboo in Asian society and it continues to be so. The pandemic ended up locking families together within four walls for longer than they expected. As a result of this enforced living arrangement, many relationships have fallen apart. The divorce rate in the UK has been increasing by nearly 19 per cent every year. The ONS said that almost 45 per cent of all marriages now end in divorce, with 109,000 being recorded in 2019.
According to The Independent, during this May, some of the major law firms have seen a 95 per cent increase in divorce enquiries. ONS has reported that women are more likely to initiate divorce proceedings now. An American survey also found that during the pandemic there has been a 34 per cent increase in divorce cases globally.
An Asian firm has told Asian Voice that more than 50 per cent of these have been from the Asian community. Reflecting on the probable reason for the rise in divorces, Clinical Psychologist Dr Tina Mistry said, “If either of the spouses suffers a job loss, they also feel psychologically vulnerable as a unit.” She also stated that “The gaps between the partners became wider because the pandemic saw a rise in gender stereotypical roles.”
With an average divorce costing £15,000, some law firms like Fair Result are offering a ‘fixed fee model’ for divorces in England and Wales to curb the expenditure as average divorce costs £15,000- that's a staggering £1.65bn going to the legal profession each year.
More than 50% of cases from the Asian community
Speaking to Asian Voice, Zharna Sutaria, Director at Vyman Solicitors said that the family law team at Vyman Solicitors have witnessed a sharp increase in the number of divorces and family-related enquiries during the latter part of 2020, following the first national lockdown.
Zhara explained, “More than 50 per cent of these have been from the Asian community with a particular rise in cases involving domestic violence.
“We do offer an initial consultation for a fixed fee which includes detailed advice on the law, procedure and next steps which are then summarised in writing. Divorce cases often involve wider issues and costs are dependent upon the complexities of the case that can unravel as the matter progresses.
“We aim to assist our clients in budgeting for costs by providing regular bills and encouraging them to make fixed payments on the account each month depending on the nature of the case. An estimate of costs is provided at the outset and regularly thereafter to keep the client fully informed and avoid surprises.”
Manisha Raja, Senior Associate, Axiom Stone told Asian Voice, “The Global Pandemic has shone a light on relationships that were already fractured, it has also impacted those relationships where divorce had not previously been discussed. Consequently, I have seen a surge in the number of divorce enquiries including from the Asian community.
“Notably, today, in the Asian community cultural barriers are less likely to stop couples from separating, rather the costs of divorce and financial uncertainty are enough to stay in an unhappy marriage. To ease that worry, where we can we offer fixed fees and work with our clients to find a stress free and practical arrangement to meet costs.”
Shalini V Bhargava of Aschfords Law said the rise in divorce enquiries is not unique to the South Asian community. Speaking to Asian Voice, she said, “The Family Law Department at Aschfords Law has experienced a rise in enquiries about divorce since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The rise in divorce enquiries is not unique to the South Asian community. The pandemic has led to an increase in divorce enquiries for several reasons, including increased stress, financial difficulty, job losses and spouses being forced to spend more time living together.
“For uncontested divorce matters, a fixed fee may be suitable. However, a fixed fee is generally not suitable for contested divorce matters, due to the uncertainty of how complicated the matter would become and whether the other spouse will be amicable or not.
“We tailor our approach to each client. We normally charge an hourly rate; however, a fixed fee may be offered in certain cases.”
Shreeti Rajdev, Partner/Solicitor of The Sethi Partnership Solicitors, also agreed that divorce enquiries have surged in the wake of the pandemic. “My firm has seen an almost doubling of new enquiries over the past 12 months compared to the same period the previous year. About a quarter of these have been from the South Asian community,” she told the newsweekly. Shreeti explained that her firm does offer an initial one hour fixed fee consultation to new clients which gives them the opportunity to gather information on their rights and options.
According to her, the divorce itself is relatively inexpensive and can be conducted under an agreed fixed fee but reaching settlement of any financial and children’s issues takes more time (and legal cost), especially if things are not amicable.
“We do not offer fixed fees for this. There is no knowing how long a case will take to conclude; a simple ‘low asset’ case in which there is an early agreement will take less time than a case in which the financial set-up is complex, or there are undisclosed assets, unusual or complicated facts. Like most Solicitors, we charge at an hourly rate, but we do everything we can to resolve matters as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. We can agree to a regular monthly payment on account to spread payments to make them more manageable,” she added.
In a recent press release, law firm ‘Fair Result’ stated that for the first time ever in England and Wales, a fixed fee model covering the whole divorce process from start to finish is now available for separating couples. With this radical new way of funding marriage breakdown, pioneered by Leicestershire-based divorce lawyer at Fair Result, no fees shall be paid until the Final Order is signed off by the court. Fair Result will now quote a fixed fee at the start of the divorce process, which will include all ancillary matters connected with the divorce, e.g. property, children, pensions, businesses and all other family assets. There will be no upfront cost and no repeated requests for more money if the case drags on. The exact fee will be quoted after an initial assessment of the case and the expected work involved. As each family is different and the complexity of their affairs different, the fixed costs will typically range from £10,000 to £30,000, but Fair Result say its fees are typically 50% less than those charged by a traditional high street law firm.
What leads to pandemic divorces?
Clinical Psychologist Dr Tina Mistry broke down some of the major tropes and aspects of why the pandemic, the lockdown and changing times may have led to divorces.
Dr Mistry told Asian Voice that the pandemic has hit people and families in different ways. While not only people have themselves lost family members or jobs, if either of the spouses suffers a job loss, they also feel psychologically vulnerable as a unit. “The effect of the pandemic and the effect of Covid has been a domino effect. We have seen tragedies happening around us.”
“Asian couples are no different from any other couples”, she added. “Separation is in fact not necessarily about the ones who live in multigenerational families. My suspicion is that these couples are living in a nuclear family setup. Being locked down together with people - living, working, eating, breathing together all the time in each other’s faces. This is not what we’re used to. We’re used to having breaks from each other. Which is helpful in forming identities beyond being a husband, wife, daughter-in-law. This blurring of boundaries during the pandemic could be one of the reasons why there are chinks in the relationship,” Dr Mistry told Asian Voice.
Due to women being bold and vocal about divorces on social media and the internet, Dr Mistry thinks that these conversations are becoming more pronounced and pretty much normalised. “The gaps between the partners became wider because the pandemic saw a rise in gender stereotypical roles which is quite prevalent in Asian communities, especially in India. Women are mostly associated with cooking and cleaning but working women who have juggled family and work from home have struggled further due to this stereotype. There needs to be more equity in the relationship,” she added.
We have seen cases of women who are trying to juggle children and work. There was a huge campaign in the UK for paid respite for working parents. It’s a reality that trying to teach kids is a whole job. Couples are going through this while doing their jobs.
“People have had to take leave or have had to step away from their jobs. It affects mental health and the relationship of the partner,” said Dr Mistry.
Meanwhile, a top divorce lawyer, Ayesha Vardag, who has worked on some of the biggest break-ups for high profile celebrities to business tycoons has gone on record to say that the pandemic has shown that “adultery is very far from the worst thing in the world” and more couples would stay together if society was less rigid and that extramarital affairs don’t need to end a marriage.
“Sometimes married couples get intolerably fed up with each other and are indeed very lonely in each other’s company as topics of conversation expire and the springs of desire run dry,” Ayesha told the Daily Mail.
Yet, the words of American playwright Robert Anderson resonate even today. He had said, “In every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find and continue to find grounds for marriage.”