Figures show a sharp rise following Pope Francis's reforms to the process

Requests for annulments in Britain and Ireland have risen following the introduction of reforms ordered by Pope Francis.

Figures released by the British and Irish diocesan tribunals show a significant increase in applications for annulments in 2016. This marks a reversal of a decades-long decline in annulment cases reflecting a decline in Catholic marriages.

The number of cases pending in England and Wales at the end of 2016 was 727, a sharp rise from the 639 cases pending at the start of the year; 607 new cases were introduced during the year, and 520 closed. Pending cases in Ireland rose from 497 to 513. In Scotland the number of pending cases fell slightly, from 144 to 141.

With his documents Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus and Mitis et Misericors Iesus, Pope Francis aimed to remove the complexity, slowness and cost of gaining an annulment. The changes came into effect in December 2015.

Fr James O’Kane, general secretary of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland, attributed the rise to one reform in particular – allowing an annulment case to be heard in the diocese where the petitioner lived or where the contract was entered into.

This made it much easier, he said, for estranged couples living in different parts of the world to seek an annulment, and prompted a rise in annulment cases in cities with a high level of immigrants.

Canon lawyer Ed Condon said: “One of the best reforms was [about] where you can seek an annulment. Before, it was unbelievably time-consuming. Now it’s much more straightforward. Pope Francis has removed one of the single greatest frustrations for tribunal staff.”

He also suggested the Pope’s reforms had “made people more aware that the process exists and the media focus on them has given people confidence that the process works.”