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Surviving wife of Saudi Arabian man must leave flat, court rules

The widow of a Saudi Arabian man is not his ‘surviving spouse’ for legal purposes, the Court of Appeal has ruled. She has not, therefore, inherited her former husband’s lease, becoming a ‘statutory tenant’ of their London flat, and so “should deliver up possession of the property”.

In Northumberland & Durham Property Trust Ltd v Ouaha, the woman, from Morocco, had undergone an Islamic marriage ceremony at a London mosque in 1987. Her husband entered a second, polygamous marriage the following year in Saudi Arabia.

He went on to have two children with his first wife. Sometime around 2002-3, the couple separated but continued to live together in the flat.

The husband died in November 2010, while staying in Saudi Arabia.

At a subsequent hearing, Judge Baucher ruled that the woman was not a ‘surviving spouse’ under the terms of the Rent Act 1977. Paragraph 2(1) of Schedule 1 to the Act states that:

“The surviving spouse (if any) of the original tenant, if residing in the dwelling-house immediately before the death of the original tenant, shall after the death be the statutory tenant if and so long as he or she occupies the dwelling-house as his or her residence.”

This was because she had entered a Sharia marriage, which is not recognised as valid under the Marriage Acts 1949 to 1986.

A witness told the court that the husband had said he had divorced his first wife, but this was only hearsay evidence.

The woman appealed. Her legal team argued that the term ‘surviving spouse’ in the Rent Act should be given a “wide” meaning and should be applied to marriages conducted overseas. A marriage certificate issued in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1993, was cited as evidence of a valid foreign marriage.

But, sitting at the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Vos said this “does not purport to evidence a marriage, but just the continuation of an existing marriage.”

He concluded:

“In my judgment, the [original] judge was right because there was no formal marriage ceremony valid under English law upon which the Appellant was able to rely. I would prefer to leave open whether the judge was right to hold that the only way in which a person can qualify as “the surviving spouse” for the purposes of paragraph 2(1) is by showing that they underwent a ceremony of marriage valid under the Marriage Acts. It may be that some or all foreign ceremonies of marriage would allow a person to qualify, but we do not need to decide that point today. What I can say is that the Appellant, on the evidence before the judge, never went through any valid ceremony of marriage recognised in the country in which the ceremony took place. Accordingly, she did not, I think, reach the starting blocks. The words “the surviving spouse” as used in paragraph 2(1) seem to me obviously to contemplate in relation to a person relying upon a marriage ceremony a person who, by that ceremony, became legally the wife or husband in the country in which the ceremony took place.”

Read the full judgement here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. Andrew says:

    When is somebody going to have the guts to tackle the menace of unofficial “marriages” under religious auspices?

    Why are those who carry them out not prosecuted?

    Why are the religious buildings where they are carried out not deprived of their rates relief?

    It’s not as if it was difficult to register a place of worship and have celebrants authorised. Or for the people running them to insist that there be a civil marriage first.

    What is going on?

  2. High Court throws out immunity claim in case involving the late king of Saudi Arabia - Marilyn Stowe Blog says:

    […] The High Court has thrown out a claim of ‘state immunity’ in a financial wrangle involving a Palestinian woman who was married to the late king of Saudi Arabia. […]

  3. Luke says:

    Good questions Andrew – I doubt you’ll get any sensible answers.

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