THE number of people getting divorced has dropped dramatically in the last two years with experts saying couples simply can't afford to separate.

In 2008, the country saw the first drop-off in proceedings in 10 years while figures obtained by the Sunday Tribune reveal circuit court applications were down nearly 20% on the year 2000.

According to the latest statistical breakdown, the country's main urban areas – Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick – account for over half of cases. There were 3,301 divorces granted last year which, when taken with the 3,588 in 2008, showed the first prolonged downward trend in proceedings since the turn of the millennium.

Since 2000, the legal system has processed 31,690 divorces.

"Family finances mean that couples can't afford to get divorced," said Eoin Cullina, a director of the Clare-based Family Mediation Ireland (FMI) and a former divorce solicitor.

"Couples are even happy to put up with their difficulties or suffer in silence rather than have to pay the legal fees."

Those who choose to contend divorce applications in the circuit court will typically end up with legal bills of between €10,000 and €15,000, including the cost of retaining a barrister. Cases ending up in the High Court often see fees mushroom to as much as €200,000.

"The amount of people applying to get divorced has decreased and the amount going for mediation has increased," said Cullina, who pointed out that typical mediation fees come in at around €2,000 per person.

Those who seek out amicable arrangements employ mediators to complete a consent application which is put before a judge without any contention, thereby avoiding any punitive legal fees.

Last year, 1,080 judicial separations – a lesser form of separation administered through the courts – were also granted.

Outside of the cities, the leading counties for proceedings were Waterford (163 granted), Wexford (139), Louth (124), Kildare (123) and Kerry (110). All other counties recorded less than 100 granted applications in 2009.