A bill to create a civil court to regulate divorce and to allow it to proceed by ordinary civil litigation had been proposed by Lord Aberdeen's coalition but had made no progress. The procedure had largely been designed by Lord Chief Justice Lord Campbell. When Lord Palmerston came to power in 1855, the bill was relaunched. The bill was introduced in the House of Lords and supported by Archbishop of Canterbury John Bird Sumner and the usually conservative Henry Phillpotts, Bishop of Exeter.
The bill proved controversial, raising particular opposition from future Liberal Party leader William Ewart Gladstone, who saw it as an usurpation of the authority of the Church, and from Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce. Palmerston eventually steered the bill through parliament, despite Gladstone's attempted filibuster.
In the first year of operation of the Act, there were three hundred divorce petitions, as against three in the previous year and there were fears of chaos. Campbell sat in some of the earliest hearings but was afraid that he had created a "Frankenstein". However, Cresswell took a managerial role in regulating the new flood of litigation. He showed great sensitivity in dealing with genuine grievances but upheld the sanctity of marriage and was capable of being severe when necessary. However, he was also instrumental in moving the legal view of divorce from that based on a sacrement to that based on contract. He worked with colossal speed and energy, deciding over one thousand cases in six years, only one of which was reversed on appeal. He achieved some public fame and huge respect, popularly being held as representing the five million married women of Britain.
The Act was also an important enabling step in unifying and rationalising the legal system of England and Wales, a process that was largely effected by the Judicature Acts (1873-1875). It also catalysed the unification of the legal profession. By the abolition of any remaining important role for canon lawyers, it ultimately led to the demise of the Doctors' Commons.