It’s a sad time for married couples at 10 Downing Street, with Matt Hancock’s affair on the front pages of nearly every British newspaper and now Michael Gove set to divorce his wife of 20 years.

Get beyond the gossip though and what are the legal implications for those caught up in this messy situation? We do not live in the American world of “irreconcilable differences” so how in practice will a divorce work assuming Messrs Hancock and Gove go ahead? There is currently just one ground for divorce in England and Wales which is “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.” This must be proven by one of five facts which are:

  • Adultery
  • Unreasonable behaviour
  • Two years’ separation with consent
  • Five years’ separation without consent
  • Desertion

Mr Hancock’s wife could rely on the fact of his adultery, that is if she can prove it or he formally admits it. “Adultery” in legal terms is a voluntary act of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman; anything less may be “unreasonable behaviour” but it is not adultery. Mr Hancock’s wife can ask the Court to grant her divorce by filing a divorce petition with the court. Mr Hancock will be served with these papers and will be asked to confirm whether that he accepts the divorce or wishes to defend.

Mr Gove’s wife, on the other hand, is likely to rely on the fact of unreasonable behaviour. She will need to show that Mr Gove’s behaviour is such that it would be unreasonable for her to continue to live with him. Mr Gove could also file his own petition and claim his wife’s behaviour is so unreasonable that he should not be expected to live with her! Gone are the archaic days where unreasonable behaviour had to amount to acts of adultery, violence, disobeying your husband etc. In the twenty first century, unreasonable behaviour can be as little as not sleeping in the same bedroom, not socialising together, not having the same common goals and effectively living separate lives. Mr Gove and his wife have alleged they have “drifted apart.” It is likely these are the types of behaviours one of them will include in their divorce petition.

The Court can refuse a petition or ask for further examples of behaviour to pass the “threshold” to move to the next stage of granting a divorce. It is for this reason that those contemplating divorce should seek legal advice. The new legislation in relation to divorce proceedings is projected to come into force in Spring 2022 which will affect the “facts” as listed above. Watch this space!

The new legislation in relation to divorce proceedings is due to come into force in Autumn 2021 which will affect the “facts” as listed above. Watch this space!

Financial matters are more complicated. They are dealt with separately by the courts who will look at what is “fair” in the circumstances, taking into account the needs of both parties and any children. Again, divorcing parties should get early legal advice on these matters.

Please contact a member of the Family Team for further assistance.

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