I vaguely recollect an occasion many, many, years ago when I was at the Royal Courts of Justice in London and I witnessed something slightly unusual. I can’t now recall why I was at the court, but I think I was waiting for the case I was involved in to come on. Whilst waiting, I witnessed a High Court judge in action as he went through prior cases on his list.
Now, as I say I don’t remember exactly what took place (this was probably the best part of thirty years ago), but the judge was dealing with a divorce case. There was some urgency about the case and the judge pronounced the decree nisi, immediately followed, as I recall, by making the decree absolute. This stuck in my mind, as I didn’t realise at the time that he had the power to do that – there must normally be a six week time period between the decree nisi and the decree absolute.
All of the above was brought to mind on Monday this week by the reporting of the judgment in Solovyev v Solovyeva. As those names suggest, the case involved a Russian couple. The couple went through the formalities of a divorce at the Russian Consulate in London. However, in a judgment on the 15th of May last, the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby held that that divorce could not be recognised in this country. Accordingly, the husband proceeded with a divorce in this country that he had issued back in July last year.
The husband’s petition came before the President on the 9th of June this year. The President duly pronounced a decree nisi of divorce. However, the husband wanted the six week period between the decree nisi and the decree absolute (which finalises the divorce) to be shortened (‘abridged’, to use the technical parlance), because he had become engaged to another woman, who could not obtain entry to this country as long as he remained married to his wife in the eyes of English law. Both he and his fiancée were anxious that this period of enforced separation between them should be brought to an end as soon as possible.
The wife did not object to this and the President considered that it was “entirely appropriate in the unusual circumstances of this case that the time for making the decree absolute should be abridged”. Accordingly, he directed that the decree nisi could be made absolute two days later, on the 11th of June.
As is clear from the above, and as I discovered myself after the events at the High Court all those years ago, the court does have power to expedite the decree absolute, and this is built into our divorce law, in section 1(5) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, where it states that the court may fix a shorter period between the two decrees. For those who are interested, the procedure for making an application to expedite the decree absolute is set out in paragraph 8 of Practice Direction 7A to the Family Procedure Rules.
As the eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed, section 1(5) refers to a period of six months between the decree nisi and the decree absolute, not a period of six weeks. This is because the period was originally six months (intended to give the parties an opportunity to reconsider), but this was subsequently reduced to six weeks. Obviously, applications to expedite the decree absolute would be far more common if the period was six months – with the period now being just six weeks they are actually quite rare.
Applications to expedite the decree absolute will only be granted in exceptional circumstances. Personally, I’m not sure that the circumstances in Solovyev were exceptional, but that’s just my opinion. The most common circumstances that are considered exceptional are where one party is dying and wishes to complete the divorce before their death, or where one party has formed a new relationship, is expecting a child by that relationship and wishes to marry their new partner before the child is born.
I should finish by pointing out that there are, of course, legal implications in finalising a divorce, and therefore anyone considering applying to expedite their decree absolute should take expert legal advice before doing so.