Is It Time For No Fault Divorce In England and Wales?
Of course, we are talking about the appeal of Mrs Owens before the Supreme Court in May this year against the decision that she be denied a divorce further to her divorce petition in 2015 citing the fact of her husband’s unreasonable behaviour.
In order to obtain a divorce in England and Wales, an applicant (until recently known as the ‘petitioner’) must demonstrate to the Family court that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, and she/he does that by relying on 1 of 5 facts.
In a nutshell, these are adultery, desertion, 2 years’ separation with consent, 5 years’ separation or, in the case of Mrs Owens and countless other applicants, so-called unreasonable behaviour.
The situation as it stands is prescribed by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, and guides the Family court that it can only determine that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, on an unreasonable behaviour application for divorce, if the applicant satisfies the court that the respondent spouse has behaved in such a way that the applicant cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent (MCA 1973, s. 1(2)).
In Mrs Owens case back in 2017, the court was not so satisfied, and her divorce was refused by Judge Robin Toulson QC. Mrs Owens took her case to the Court of Appeal, to save herself from being trapped in what she described as a loveless marriage until 2020. The decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal, with the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, stating that the appeal judges were not prepared to interfere with the earlier decision.
We of course know that to establish unreasonable behaviour draws on both subjective and objective elements. The applicant must believe that the behaviour constitutes unreasonable behaviour to this standard but, with the word ‘reasonably’, comes a requirement for objectivity.
In Mrs Owens case, it was clear that the court expected a certain standard of ‘bad behaviour’ to have been reached to enable a successful petition and, even though Mrs Owens believed her husband’s behaviour was sufficiently bad to justify a divorce, the court decided that it was not.
So what’s left for Mrs Owens to do in this situation? She took her case to the Supreme Court and this was heard in May this year. If she is unsuccessful, she will have to wait until 2020 to rely on 5 years’ separation to obtain her divorce. All the while she continues to live separate and apart from her husband, whilst being denied the financial remedy she would have access to within divorce proceedings.
Resolution: First for Family Law, intervened in the proceedings, and are using the Owens decision to advocate ‘No Fault Divorce’. Nigel Shepherd, Resolution’s immediate past Chair, has said, “Owens v Owens must be the spark that ignites a fundamental change in our divorce law”.
Onions & Davies Solicitors is championing the cause and our family lawyers believe that it’s time for change.
Currently, if parties wish to divorce within 2 years, Resolution lawyers repeatedly find themselves in the paradox of helping their clients find a constructive, child-focused resolution to the end of the marriage, whilst having to justify the reason for the divorce to the court. It doesn’t take much to see the merit in a system which takes the blame away.
However, even if Mrs Owens is successful, this will not ‘end the blame game’. We need Parliament for that. It’s just a step closer in the effort towards a system of no-fault divorce – what Resolution is calling ‘a better way’.