Divorce applications rise 25% in Hong Kong as younger couples look to split

The number of divorce applications in Hong Kong rose 25 per cent year on year in 2023, with a family lawyer pointing to a surge in younger couples seeking to split for reasons such as adultery and conflicts over parenting.

According to a paper the judiciary submitted to the Legislative Council’s Special Finance Committee on Thursday, the number of divorce cases filed with the Family Court increased to 20,621 last year from 16,513 in 2022.

Last year’s number was the highest since 2019, when 22,074 applications were filed and the average waiting time between the setting down of a case to the hearing ranged from 81 to 89 days. The waiting time last year was between 53 and 71 days.

“The high number of divorce cases is certainly not a good thing for Hong Kong society, where the administration has actively called for a boost in birth rates,” said family lawyer Jocelyn Tsao, who started her practice in 2007.

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The Census and Statistics Department said in February that the city had recorded 33,200 births last year, a 2 per cent increase over 2022, and the first uptick since 2017.

Tsao said she had observed that an increasing number of couples aged in their late 30s to late 40s had filed for divorce in the past five years, with many cases involving two common reasons – adultery and conflicts over parenting.

“But interestingly, we found more clients came to consult for divorce without making the final decision to file a petition in the three years of the pandemic,” Tsao noted.

According to the judiciary, the Family Court received an annual average of 17,196 cases between 2020 and 2022, with the average waiting time ranging from 62 to 69 days.

She also noticed that children affected by divorce cases were getting younger, with an application she handled involving a child who was just one year old.

“When there is no court order for custody, or care and control of the child, parents tend not to give up living with their children,” she said.

“Imagine a situation where the parents are in high conflict, their children will live under an intense and hostile environment that does no good to the kids’ [mental health].”

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Reverend Peter Koon Ho-ming, a local legislator who had asked the judiciary for the information on the Family Court, said he had received many calls for help from people because of the long waiting times for processing their divorce applications.

“They are often at a loss as many of them eagerly wanted to start over as soon as possible,” said Koon, adding most of the calls he had received were from parents with children aged 10 and below.

In Hong Kong, one has to prove to the court that “the marriage has irretrievably broken down” before getting approval for a divorce.

Reasons include the spouse committing adultery, behaving in such a way that one cannot be reasonably expected to live with him or her, or the couple having lived apart for a continuous period of at least two years before filing the petition.

Both Tsao and Koon agreed that the key to shortening the waiting period was to have more judges sitting on the Family Court.

According to the judiciary, the personnel serving on Family Court has remained the same – 63 from 2020-21 to 2023-24, including one principal Family Court judge and seven district judges.

“I will also suggest the judiciary to turn to more new technologies to enhance its efficiency,” Koon said.

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Meanwhile, at a meeting of the Special Finance Committee on Monday, judiciary administrator Esther Leung Yuet-yin said the heavy workload at various levels of the courts was largely due to cases being postponed during the pandemic and an increasing number of complex criminal cases.

“Due to the deployment of judicial resources to handle with priority [2019 protests-related] and [national security] cases, the average court waiting times for criminal cases were inevitably affected,” she said.

Leung said the judiciary could meet various target waiting times for most civil cases.

As of end-February, courts of various levels had cleared about 93 per cent of more than 2,300 cases related to the 2019 protests and 87 per cent of over 200 national security cases.

Leung said she expected waiting times for other cases could gradually fall after 2024.



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