A new family law heroine

Family Law|March 24th 2015

Well, a rather old one, actually, but that sounds a little disrespectful.

My present-day family law heroine is, of course, a certain lady who gave her name to this blog. However, I have recently discovered (or perhaps re-discovered) another heroine, who did her work in a different era.

Imagine being a wife who is so seriously beaten by her jealous and drunken husband that she is forced to leave him for her own safety. That is quite bad enough, but imagine that you might not see your children again, as they are the legal property of your husband. On top of that, imagine that a court says that your earnings must be passed to your husband as they are legally his, and he then fails to maintain you.

Such was the situation faced by Caroline Norton in 1836. The granddaughter of the playwright Richard Sheridan, her father died when she was just eight years old, leaving her family in serious financial difficulties. Accordingly, when just eight years later George Norton, an MP and younger brother of a Lord asked to marry her, her mother was keen for the match to go ahead. Apparently against her better judgement, Caroline agreed.

Although they had three sons, the marriage was a disaster. George Norton was possessive and given to fits of violent drunkenness. Caroline was the victim of regular and vicious beatings. Twice she left her husband, only to return for the sake of the children.

In 1836 Caroline left her husband for the last time. For a while she managed to live on her earnings as an author but, as mentioned above, her husband took her to court and successfully argued that as her husband her earnings were legally his.

As if that were not enough, her husband also abducted their sons and hid them with relatives, refusing to allow Caroline access to them.

But even that was not enough for George Norton. He accused Caroline of having an affair with the then Prime Minister Lord Melbourne. He sued Melbourne for ‘criminal conversation‘, seeking compensation from him for seducing his wife. The jury threw out the claim, but Caroline’s reputation was in tatters.

Caroline then embarked upon a campaign to change the law and improve the position of wives upon marriage breakdown, including publishing pamphlets arguing for the natural rights of mothers to have custody of their children. She was subsequently instrumental in the passing of two crucial pieces of reforming legislation: the Custody of Infants Act 1839 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857.

The Custody of Infants Act 1839 began the process of making both parents equal in the eyes of the law. It permitted a mother to petition the courts for custody of her children up to the age of seven, and for access in respect of older children.

Prior to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 the only way of obtaining a full divorce which allowed re-marriage was by a Private Act of Parliament, which meant that only the wealthy, which usually meant only husbands, could afford to get divorced. The only ground for divorce was adultery, but wives could only initiate a divorce Bill if the adultery was compounded by life-threatening cruelty. The 1857 Act transferred divorce proceedings from Parliament to a special civil court, enabling far more people to seek a divorce. Adultery remained the sole ground for divorce, although wives could now allege cruelty and desertion, in addition to the husband’s adultery, in order to obtain a divorce.

These two pieces of reforming legislation were in many ways the start of the long process towards the much fairer (if still imperfect) family justice system that we have today. Without pioneers such as Caroline Norton we would still be living in the dark ages of family law, with mothers shut out of their children’s lives and couples trapped in life-long unhappy relationships.

Author: Stowe Family Law

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