Divorces surge amid pandemic and downturn

Top News | Mandy Zheng 21 Jan 2021

The number of divorces handled by local law firms has doubled amid the pandemic and economic downturn, with stay-at-home arrangements and unemployment blamed for soured relationships.

Cross-border couples are hit the hardest as many have spent more than a year apart due to travel restrictions, said Kenneth Mak, founder of Smithfield Divorce Hong Kong.

Mak said the firm is hiring 10 additional staff to deal with the surge in demand, as it now handles about 100 divorce cases a month, twice the 50 cases in June last year.

Inquiries about separation also rose from 300 to 600 phone calls a month during the same period.

"Many couples have quarreled more while staying at home together every day. They realized conflicts that didn't seem to exist when they used to go to the office," Mak said.

He also believed that people tended to be more sensitive about their significant-other's hygiene and living habits as disease control remains uppermost during the pandemic.

One of the company's clients seeking a divorce was a nurse who had been working long hours at a hospital, which made her husband nervous about the risk of her bringing the coronavirus home.

"He would demand she take a shower right after returning home," Mak said.

Financial reasons are also a trigger for arguments, especially when one of them became unemployed.

Some young couples decided to split as they had no money left to pay the mortgage loan, he said, adding: "We expect more separations caused by debt and bankruptcy this year."

Maintaining a relationship is even harder for citizens with spouses living or working on the mainland due to border crossing restrictions.

"We have seen more mainland-Hong Kong couples wishing to separate, although they'll have to wait until they can come to the SAR to actually file the divorce," Mak said.

Another law firm, Ming Tak, also said it had recorded a 10 percent increase in divorce cases since the pandemic began last year, most of which involved local couples.

It added that the rise was mainly due to massive layoffs in the city, which left many breadwinners no longer able to provide for the family.

Divorces and break-ups have become more common amid the pandemic in countries around the world, including Britain, the United States and Sweden.

Experts say the usual lovers' spats over house chores have become disputes over child care at home during lockdowns, money issues, worsening mental health problems and the rise of domestic abuse.

Mandy Wong Nga-sze of the Hong Kong Federation of Women's Centres, a concern group for grassroots women, said that up to 90 percent of domestic violence victims who called the group for help had inquired about divorce.

The federation's hotline received more calls from women suffering from abuse at home - 34 cases between January and March last year, up from 16 during the same period in 2019.

"Many of them were abused more than once, and have long suffered in silence," she said.

"Those finally deciding to leave their husbands might have faced violence more frequently amid the pandemic, to the extent that they started to fear a threat to their life."

The group last year helped a mother to apply for legal assistance for divorce and move to a relative's place with her child, after years of being beaten by her husband.

"He beat her kid for the first time. That was a deciding moment for her leaving," Wong said.

Government statistics showed 21,157 divorces in 2019, and 15,393 court cases of matrimonial troubles involving divorce, annulment, judicial separation, death presumption and dissolution of marriage.

There were 8,902 cases of matrimonial causes between January and September last year.


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