‘This article is written by Sushmita Choudhary from New Law College, Bharati Vidyapeeth Deemed University. The article aims to inform how the lockdown is impacting divorce cases’.
While some people are looking at the positive aspects of the lockdown by appreciating it as an opportunity for spending time with their families or managing a good routine of exercise, there are other people who are being forced into confinement, or are facing whole other selection of problems- form mental health issues and child care concerns to a devastating increase in domestic violence. The life-shattering issues of divorce and separation also might fall in the latter category.
For some, the prospect of being quarantined with their partner may be seen as a welcome opportunity to spend more time together, however, it may force the already ongoing tensions in their relationship to reach its apex. Already fragile relationships may find it harder to bear any more brunt during the lockdown. In some cases, marriages might be like a bubble waiting to burst. Often when couples face stressful situations among themselves, they try to reevaluate life. While everyone is trying their best possible way to deal with the lockdown, it might not be a surprise that when the dust settles, we see an increase in couples seeking an end to their relationship. It is obvious that many divorce lawyers are expecting an increase in the number of cases of divorce arising from the current pandemic.
Situation around the Globe
China as a ‘Warning’
While the coronavirus surged in China and mandatory lockdowns were imposed by the government, Ms Wu, a housewife in her mid-thirties in southern Guangdong Province, got the time to spend almost two months in quarantine with her unemployed husband. They fought constantly. Wu, who did not give her full name to avoid publicity, ticked off a familiar list of marital irritants, including little money, too much screen time, housework and not evenly split child care. Her particular annoyance was about her husband being into the habit of engaging their children in play when they were supposed to be going to bed. “He is the troublemaker in the house”, she said. “I don’t want to endure anymore. We’ve agreed to get a divorce, and the next thing is to find lawyers.”
Besides the fact that China publishes its nationwide statistics on divorce once in a year, media reports from several cities have shown uncouplings increased in March as husbands and wives started coming out of their homes after the weeks of government-mandated lockdown due to coronavirus. Incidents of domestic violence also increased. The city of Xian and Dazhou reported a record-high number of divorce filings in the start of March which created long backlogs at government offices. According to a report published in mid-March on the city government website, in Hunan province’s Miluo, staff members claimed to not even have the time to drink water because of the extensive lined up file of couples. Clerks struggled to keep up since there was a record number in a single day. Yi Xiaoyan, the city registration centre’s director said that minor matters in life have caused an increase in conflicts, and lack of communication has caused everyone to lose faith in marriage and hence make the decision to divorce.
A Shanghai divorce lawyer working at Gentle & Trust Law Firm said that his caseload had increased 25% since the city’s lockdown had eased in mid-March. According to him, infidelity was the No.1 reason for clients to show up at his door. When the virus hit in January, many couples were forced to be trapped under one roof for an additional two months after the Lunar New Year holiday. For many, it was too much time. He said that the more they had spent time together, the more they had hated each other. He was of the opinion that people needed space not only in romantic relationships but in every relationship.
Reports of conjugal strife have filled the Chinese media. According to Sixth Tone, a Shanghai-based online publication reported that police had received 162 reports of domestic violence in February which was three times more than the 47 reported cases last year in the same month in a county which is situated along the Yangtze River in central Hubei province.
Feng Yuan, the co-founder of Equality, said that there had been a rise in the requests to her organization for help. Equality is a non-governmental organization based in Beijing which focuses on gender-based violence. She said that lockdown brought out the latent tendencies that were present before but did not come out. She claimed that police had been so busy enforcing the lockdown that sometimes they had been unable to respond to emergency calls from battery victims who had been experiencing violence and unable to leave.
A study in Hong Kong found that after a year of the outbreak of the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, the survivors seemed to have elevated and worrying levels of psychological distress including depression and anxiety. Divorce in 2004 in Hong Kong was 21% higher than in 2002. SARS had infected nearly 1,800 people and killed 299 in Hong Kong after originating from its neighbour, China where more than 5,300 people were infected and 336 dead.
According to Zhou Qiang, Chief Justice of the Supreme People’s Court, women in China almost always (74% of the time) take the initiative of the divorce process but women are also more often on the short end of marital finances.
Among urban Chinese, it’s a staple culture for young single men who want to get married that they purchase a home, often with the help of their parents to demonstrate their financial stability to find potential mates. In a divorce in China, the husband retains the right to all his assets of his premarital possession, sometimes even when his wife has paid the mortgage. Fortunately, Ms Wu’s parents had paid for the couple’s home and car, which deprived her of the danger of dispossession.
According to the New Daily, an online newspaper, coronavirus is taking a heavy toll on Australian couples. A growing number of people seeking a divorce or getting relationship counselling has been witnessed.
Fiona Reid, a divorce lawyer at Reid Family Lawyers said that divorce inquiries were rising among couples in home isolation due to coronavirus. She exclaimed that never in her career, had she seen something as catastrophic as this for relationships. According to her, financial pressure was a common issue in marriages but the added issue of social isolation and work from home had made the cracks even more pronounced. She said that there had been a real spike in instances of domestic violence and it was crucial for people to not stay in a situation where they were being exposed to violence. She insisted on getting legal advice to know what people’s entitlements are and what are the best outcomes and arrangements for children.
Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia, a leading divorce lawyer whose previous clients include Sir Paul McCartney, Prince Charles and Madonna commented in the House of Lords that the coronavirus outbreak was “very likely” to lead to an increase in marriage break-ups because couples would be kept in self-isolation together when Boris Johnson urged affected households to go into voluntary lockdown to avoid the infection of coronavirus. She said that the prediction amongst divorce lawyers was that following the lockdown, it was very likely that the divorce rate would rise and told to imagine what it would be like when families would be sealed in a property for a long period of time.
While talking to the CNBC, another divorce lawyer, Ayesha Vardag, one of Britain’s best-known lawyers in her profession, said clients had been contacting her and her team in a huge number incessantly during the lockdown period, sneaking calls into the law firm while on their daily exercise or grocery shopping, whenever they could manage to be away from the house. She assuredly exclaimed, “ It’s been amazing how the calls have still kept coming in-two dozen a day”. “They are finding lockdown is forcing their hand, they just can’t stand it anymore”. She predicted an explosion in the number of divorce cases post lockdown and also said that all those people who have not been able to get to law firms like us would go completely mad. She said that such things happen when people are forced to be together in a pressure-cooker environment. Known for having made US-style prenups enforceable in the UK, Vardag said the lockdown will also witness many large settlements being reopened as a result of the financial collapse of the paying parties because of the subsiding economy. People will be claiming that previous settlements will exhaust their resources. Claimants will be arguing they cannot afford to make the agreed payments if their business has been drained or subsided in the ensuing economic crisis. Vardag claimed that her firm had also seen a sudden rise in the number of domestic violence cases during the lockdown where alcohol and money were proving a major cause of friction. “The fact is people are depressed, anxious and bored and are drinking more than they usually would,” she said. “It’s making some of them nasty and abusive, and sometimes that turns into physical abuse”. According to her, in situations like this (when there is enough time for realisation), you find out if your partner is strong and positive or will run around making everyone miserable because people’s characters are forced into sharp relief.
She also said that according to her, any couple would not break up just because of coronavirus but when there has been an underlying problem and people had been distracting themselves with work, friends or perhaps a lover to make the marriage sustainable, this can cause a permanent split because now those distractions have been ripped away.
Some people are seeing this lockdown as an opportunity to spend time with families but the lockdown has its side-effects as well. Matrimonial lawyers across India have witnessed a spike in phone calls related to marital disharmony. Also, they have received phone calls related to divorce settlements and alimony. In Spite of the lockdown, they have received requests for urgent personal meetings.
Advocate Vandana Shah while speaking to The Mumbai Mirror, said she and her two colleagues have been receiving almost 20 to 30 calls per day for the past one week of lockdown.
Another matrimonial lawyer Mrunalini Deshmukh said she has been attending about 10 calls in a week and been attending video calls with newly made clients amongst whom one was a mother to a five-year-old who wants a smooth end to her unhappy marriage. Ashwini Sathe-Pathak, another matrimonial lawyer has been sought by two upper-middle-class men who relentlessly want her to start drafting petitions for divorce against their wives. Mrunalini Deshmukh said even small issues like “switching off the air-conditioner” are raising discontent in some marriages.
Akshat Singhal, founder of online legal platform Legistify said that he was surprised by witnessing a three-fold increase in new divorce queries since the lockdown. Having said that, he reasoned that domestic violence was a major cause. Also, there was added stress due to job insecurity and financial uncertainty, especially among small business owners and blue-collar workers. He said that since people could not get out of their house, they were consulting a lawyer online or on the phone.
Sonal Sheth, a psychotherapist claimed she had seen a spike in the number of married couples asking for sessions within 10 days of the beginning of the lockdown. She said, “Many marital problems such as lack of communication and other underlying issues that had been brushed under the proverbial carpet are now getting magnified as couples are forced to confront them”.
The Mumbai-based divorce lawyer, Vandana Shah recalled getting a call from a man in his forties who had just discovered that his wife was cheating on him by getting through her smartphone. She said that while he still had suspicions, it was only at home during lockdown that he discovered her paramour. Since a week from the lockdown, Shah and her team of three lawyers had been busy giving free legal advice and had got over 150 daily queries on Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram.
Since the lockdown, cases of domestic abuse have seen a surge in India. Uttar Pradesh’s police have already launched a special hotline to deal with the pressing issue of domestic violence during the lockdown. Couples should consider whether therapy or marriage counselling might be worth exploring before coming to the decision of divorce. Considering the physical, emotional and financial practicalities of divorce in the current climate would be efficient for couples and children too. Before making the final decision, partners should consider taking advice and reflecting on it.
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