“The Times They Are A-Changin” *
Family law has not kept pace with societal developments but as a result of a recent case, this may be changing.
In order to get divorced in England and Wales, one needs to show that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. There are only five grounds to “prove” that this is the case. Three grounds involve periods of living apart. The shortest period is to have lived apart for two years on the basis that both parties to the marriage agree to the divorce. If one party does not agree then parties must live separately for at least five years. The two immediate grounds for divorce are adultery and unreasonable behaviour (fault based grounds). For many years family lawyers (especially those of us who are members of Resolution) have campaigned for a more compassionate “no fault” system in England and Wales. Where appropriate, many family lawyers have tried to assist clients in taking the ‘fault’ out of unreasonable behaviour petitions (as far as possible) by encouraging clients to draft mild divorce petitions and in many cases assisting the parties in agreeing the examples of unreasonable behaviour that will be used.
Family lawyers recognise and statistics bear this out that helping families separate with dignity and as little animosity as possible is better for the mental health of the divorcing couple and for any children of the family.
Mr and Mrs Owens
The decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Mr and Mrs Owens may put pressure on Parliament to look again at the current grounds for divorce and debate the introduction of a ‘no fault divorce system’ in England and Wales.
Mr and Mrs Owens were married for 37 years when they separated in 2015 and Mrs Owens started divorce proceedings on the basis of Mr Owens unreasonable behaviour. Mrs Owens filed a divorce petition on the basis of Mr Owens unreasonable behaviour and initially tried to keep her allegations limited and mild. Things changed when Mr Owens decided to defend the divorce petition. Mrs Owens was given leave to amend her divorce petition which eventually contained 27 allegations of Mr Owens’ unreasonable behaviour.
Mr Owens continued to defend the divorce. The case became one of the 1% of defended divorces in the UK. This meant that the parties had to attend court and provide evidence before a Judge about why Mrs Owens was alleging that the marriage had broken down. The initial Judge found that although the marriage had broken down (at this stage Mr and Mrs Owens were living in separate households) he felt that the 27 examples of unreasonable behaviour were “at best flimsy” and Mrs Owens had failed to prove “the allegations of unreasonable behaviour” against Mr Owens. Mrs Owens went to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal dismissed Mrs Owen’s appeal and did not overturn the decision of the original judge. Mrs Owens then appealed to the Supreme Court. Baroness Hale of the Supreme Court said that “I have found this a very troubling case….” It is not for us to change the law laid down by Parliament – our role is only to interpret and apply the law that Parliament has given us.” The Supreme Court “reluctantly” dismissed Mrs Owens’ appeal. The result is that Mrs Owens is forced to remain married to Mr Owens until 2020, although they have been living apart since March 2015.
One hopes that once Brexit has been resolved, Parliament will debate a much needed reform of divorce law and establish an effective no fault system in England and Wales.
* Bob Dylan 1964