Are lockdown divorces a new phenomenon? As thousands of couples around the world have been forced to spend time together under high-stress situations, has there really been an increase in the divorce rate worldwide, and was it also observed in South Africa?

There’s some debate over the answer. While there has been an increase in divorce applications, the administration of these applications has been delayed due to the fact that many courts have been closed due to the pandemic. The result is a glut of applications that need to be processed as soon as possible.

Make or break

The lockdown has forced many couples to confront issues that they may have been avoiding for a long time. Knowing that you can rely on your partner for support during a time of crisis is critical. A strong relationship is able to withstand the added stressors, but a relationship that was showing cracks before the crisis may end up crumbling.

According to a June report in the British Telegraph, “Divorce enquiries are up 42% since coronavirus restrictions started.”

Some reports have noted that China’s divorce applications have increased by 30%. However, a November 2019 article by the South China Morning Post noted that there was already an increase in divorce rates in the country due to amended laws and declining stigmas. The lockdown may have been the final straw for some couples who were considering divorce before the pandemic began.

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In a piece by The Global Times, the divorce statistics in China were attributed to a combination of administration backlog (due to offices being closed during the lockdown) and the fact that many couples were cooped up in close quarters during the period. But due to the admin backlog, the increase in applications is not as significant as it may initially seem.

This observation is echoed by Natasha Truyens, Family Law Attorney, Senior Associate – Barnard Inc. Attorneys in South Africa.

“Not everyone will indicate whether their divorce was pandemic-related, but there’s no doubt it’s created additional conflict,” says Truyens. “Still, tracking the cause of the surge in divorce cases following the pandemic is tricky, given that, as courts have been closed and are now reopening, so there’s a scramble to deal with the backlog of divorces that were in process, or those break-ups that were a fait accompli before the lockdown was ordered.”

According to a report by DIY Legal, there has been a 20% increase in divorce applications since level 4 lockdown.

“During lockdown level 5 there was an increase in interest, but it wasn’t possible to progress divorces, so the majority waited until they weren’t locked down to proceed with their divorce. From our statistics we can’t (yet) see the peaks from Saudi Arabia and China in terms of divorce, but we can see that there is an increase. As our lockdown becomes even less severe, and the economic situation worsens we expect to see more divorces like international trends.”

According to DIY Legal’s statistics, most South African have multiple reasons for divorce, but most of them don’t specifically reference the pandemic. The most popular single reason, cited by 16% of respondents, is: ‘There is no love, respect or affection between the parties.’

Increase in calls to legal practitioners

“Legal practitioners are certainly receiving an increase in calls from people who say they’re considering splitting up as soon as they can,” says Truyens.

“Clients are indicating their intention to divorce but court closures, income reduction, job loss, temporary reduction in the value of property have all made it difficult for them to pursue the divorce in the usual manner or time frame.

“With the backlog in pending divorce cases and considering that South Africa has yet to reach the peak of COVID-related infections and there is uncertainty as to whether courts will be closed again temporarily.”

What should couples, who intend to go ahead with divorce, do in the interim?

“If the couple has children, it will be important to put a settlement agreement incorporating a parenting plan in place as part of the divorce discussions,” says Truyens.

“Family law attorneys will be able to guide the couple through this process and facilitate mediation where necessary. Aside from the splitting of assets, parental responsibilities can be the main sticking point of most contested divorces.”

“Push to try and resolve disputes, such as assets division, collaboratively with your attorneys. Many legal practitioners favour agreements on the “courtroom steps” or as soon as practical (especially when there are minor children involved) so to speak, as this will result in a swifter, more efficient and cost-efficient process in the court.”