It is too soon to have any real statistics around this issue. We suspect that with time, a trend may begin to emerge which shows an increase in the rate of separation, following on from the COVID-19 pandemic. This is one of the most significant global events of our lifetime and it impacts every facet of society.
The COVID-19 crisis is a source of significant stress as people are separated from friends and loved ones overseas, are concerned for their health and the heath of their family, and worried about their financial position. When couples are faced with the sort of challenges COVID-19 is presenting, relationships which may have already been rocky, are at high risk of crumbling altogether.
New Zealand obviously opted for a very strict lockdown, very early in the piece compared to other countries. Family lawyers are always busy, and this continued through the lockdown period in New Zealand. We were surprised that despite the lockdown, many people still sought out advice if they were thinking about separating from their partner. We had some logistical issues to overcome to ensure that advice could be provided confidentially, given clients were in lockdown with their partners – many people took themselves off for a walk and called us while they did that to talk things through.
Since the lockdown, we have found we are overall busier than ever and continue to give advice to people who are thinking about separating or have decided to separate. In terms of the relationship to COVID-19, we are noticing a real mix of issues, for example:
- You could certainly infer that the stress and uncertainty associated with COVID-19 has had an impact on the decision of many couples to separate, although most have been working through difficulties for some time. Spending such consistent time together during lockdown was a real struggle for many of our clients. COVID-19 seems in some cases to be “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.
- For some people, the global pandemic appears to have been the catalyst which encouraged them to take the steps they needed to be happy again and separate from their spouse/partner. It has reminded people that life is short and none of us knows what’s around the corner, and they are perhaps no longer prepared to tolerate being in an unhappy relationship.
- For others, whilst they continue to consider leaving their spouse or partner, the financial pressures and constraints many New Zealanders are facing, are giving people pause. They may be reluctant to take the final step to separate because of financial uncertainty. For many, the pool of relationship property which existed before COVID-19 may now be worth significantly less. So many have lost jobs and livelihoods, making an already stressful decision like separation, all the more frightening.
Where to from here?
Going forward, and with no sign that COVID-19 is going anywhere for some time, we think its impact will continue to be felt in the family law world.
- People are much more restricted in terms of overseas travel which for some is really challenging and the financial pressures may mean people take fewer holidays from work (even domestically), adding to people’s stress and feelings of unhappiness.
- The process of exchanging information to progress a separation seems to be taking longer as people are more protective of their financial information.
- We are finding that the banks are much slower at the moment to approve lending which also is delaying the settlement process after a separation.
Listen to the interview with RNZ reporter Katie Todd here: https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018758872/covid-19-separation-enquiries-up-25-pct-barrister