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A rare defended divorce has its day in court

Update: some of our readers may have seen the original version of this post. That was partly based on information we received late on Wednesday from an apparently reputable source which nevertheless turned out to be incorrect. Our apologies for any confusion caused.

After a relatively quiet start to 2017, some interesting family law cases have begun to generate headlines. Amongst the most unusual was one we reported only yesterday – a wife’s appeal against an “extraordinary” refusal of her divorce petition.

The facts are fairly straightforward. The wife is in her 60s and her husband in his late 70s. They had lived a prosperous life together for nearly 40 years but it seems the relationship had begun to fray in recent years and the wife left the matrimonial home in 2013. Eventually she filed for divorce, insisting that her marriage was “isolated” and “loveless”. Her husband had become critical and argumentative she complained, citing rows and outbursts that she felt constituted what is often (but wrongly in law) referred to as ‘unreasonable behaviour‘ – but the basis of which is one of the five facts which can be used to prove the ‘irretrievable breakdown’ of a marriage.

So far, so ordinary. The breakdown of a long marriage is sad but nothing else especially unusual. All those years can be a burden and not a blessing and sometimes people long for some freedom in the twilight of their lives.

But in this particular case things took a turn for the unexpected when a Judge refused the wife’s petition. Her husband had taken the unusual step of defending the divorce and succeeded in convincing the presiding family court judge, who declared her claims “flimsy” and “exaggerated”.

That is uncommon these days and it was no surprise that the wife subsequently appealed. In court her barrister did not mince his words, insisting that:

“It is extraordinarily unusual in modern times for a court to dismiss a petition for divorce.”

‘In modern times’ is the key here. As we have discussed here before, English law insists on a fault-based approach where an immediate divorce is sought. There must a form of misconduct, whether it is adultery which is intolerable or behaviour which no ordinary person can be expected to endure. By far the most commonly cited reason for the breakdown of a marriage is a person’s behaviour – as it is phrased in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973:

“…that the respondent has behaved in such a way that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent.”

As you can imagine, these are malleable words and can be stretched to cover anything from genuinely outrageous behaviour right through to humdrum human failings.

As I write, we are still awaiting a verdict from the Court of Appeal in this case. I shall be very intrigued to see what they make of it. My suspicion is that a significant part of the problem may have lain in the original petition itself. How was it phrased and what did it say? What instructions did the wife give to her legal team? If her instructions were bland, then the petition might have been just as lacklustre. Sometimes petitions stand or fall on the instructions given by a client and the translation of these onto paper. There is an art in trying to coax the best from tongue-tied clients who struggle to open up. Marriage is a very personal experience and not everyone finds it easy to discuss the deterioration of the central relationship in their lives. On the other hand perhaps the petition was kept deliberately low key so as not to inflame the situation any further. However, given a determined respondent all guns should really be out blazing.

The Matrimonial Causes Act lays a clear duty on the Judge to consider the facts when a divorce petition is presented. Yes, organisations such as Resolution have been banging the drum for no fault divorce for years now, but the reality is that ending a marriage has not yet become the  bureaucratic, rubber-stamping exercise they seem to want.  Let’s take a look at section one of the Act – note in particular those sections which I have underlined:

“(1)Subject to section 3 below, a petition for divorce may be presented to the court by either party to a marriage on the ground that the marriage has broken down irretrievably.

(2)The court hearing a petition for divorce shall not hold the marriage to have broken down irretrievably unless the petitioner satisfies the court of one or more of the following facts, that is to say—

(a)that the respondent has committed adultery and the petitioner finds it intolerable to live with the respondent;

(b)that the respondent has behaved in such a way that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent;

(c)that the respondent has deserted the petitioner for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition;

(d)that the parties to the marriage have lived apart for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition (hereafter in this Act referred to as “two years’ separation”) and the respondent consents to a decree being granted;

(e)that the parties to the marriage have lived apart for a continuous period of at least five years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition (hereafter in this Act referred to as “five years’ separation”).

(3)On a petition for divorce it shall be the duty of the court to inquire, so far as it reasonably can, into the facts alleged by the petitioner and into any facts alleged by the respondent.

(4)If the court is satisfied on the evidence of any such fact as is mentioned in subsection (2) above, then, unless it is satisfied on all the evidence that the marriage has not broken down irretrievably, it shall, subject to [F2section 5] below, grant a decree of divorce.

(5)Every decree of divorce shall in the first instance be a decree nisi and shall not be made absolute before the expiration of six months from its grant unless the High Court by general order from time to time fixes a shorter period, or unless in any particular case the court in which the proceedings are for the time being pending from time to time by special order fixes a shorter period than the period otherwise applicable for the time being by virtue of this subsection.

[F3(6)Only conduct between the respondent and a person of the opposite sex may constitute adultery for the purposes of this section.]

Note in particular paragraph 3:

“On a petition for divorce it shall be the duty of the court to inquire, so far as it reasonably can, into the facts alleged by the petitioner and into any facts alleged by the respondent.”

That is the key to this whole story I believe. The Judge considered the facts presented by the wife and found them unconvincing.

Back when I was a trainee, divorce petitioners had to go into open court and present their cases under oath, even if the divorce was undefended. And it has to be said, some judges appeared to me, an inexperienced novice at the time, to be pretty vile as they sat there pondering the claims and counterclaims made.

Sometimes petitions were thrown out. That happened to me once, although in my defence I can say that a partner in my firm at the time had actually drafted the petition (I was still a trainee). It involved a woman whose husband had been pretty awful to her. It stands out in my mind because she was in tears as she gave her evidence and for some time afterwards. She found it difficult to give evidence in public. I still remember how unfair the Judge’s attitude to our client seemed. I tried my best to cheer her up over a cup of tea and we did eventually get her the divorce she wanted – but on a different fact: her husband agreed to two years’ separation by consent (see paragraph d) above).

Things have changed since those days. Divorce is now largely a paper exercise and very rarely goes to court, unless the couple in question are at each other’s throats and wealthy enough to be able to afford the unnecessary fight. Divorce lawyers try to keep allegations and claims as mild as possible to try and avoid inflaming a difficult and emotive situation. Every opportunity is also taken by the Judges before whom these cases appear for preliminary hearings to steer divorce cases out of the courtroom and into settlement as soon as possible. For one thing, this helps to keep costs down. And of course, legal aid is no longer available for common-or-garden family disputes and that has a lot to do with the rarity of defended divorces in 2017.

Many Judges now have an active dislike of defended divorce, seeing them as a waste of court time. Most of us recognise that if one partner says a marriage is over, then it is doomed from that day on, no matter what the other person thinks. But others disagree. They object to he perceived stigma of an official declaration that they have behaved in such a way that the other could not reasonably be expected to live with them. In my entire career however, I’ve found a great deal of pragmatism, especially if the court is advised the allegations are not admitted but also not being defended because of the cost involved. That is usually enough. Alternatively allegations can be watered down and agreed and the court advised accordingly.  I have only seen one actually make into the courtroom and we successfully obtained a decree of divorce for the client. Another years ago nearly made it. That involved parents who had sadly lost their child and the resulting grief led to the breakdown of their relationship. The case settled minutes – literally – before they were due in court. It was a sad day all round but huge sighs of relief were breathed by all us lawyers who would otherwise have had to battle over the conduct arising from the grief of the couple

So the law remains the law and as we learned yesterday there are no plans for change. I reluctantly agree. If it is to change a great deal of time and thought must go into what replaces it because there are so many possibilities, and Parliament isn’t the first stop. Faced with such a task, I foresee disaster. But there is a nagging thought in my mind that the unfortunate woman in this case appears to be a bit of a sacrificial lamb: an example of the unfairness of the law. As ever, and as I mentioned in my video blog post yesterday, cases like these ultimately boil down to the wisdom of the individual judges involved.

And there I rest my case.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. JamesB says:

    Thanks for this.

    I have three criticisms.

    The first for myself. When I read the headline, I thought, I bet this is a woman defending a divorce, hell hath no fury than a woman scorned. So, perhaps I need to reassess my attitude on that one and perhaps theres some sexism I need to sort out.

    Second, you did it above and I have had it at me from lawyers, when something goes wrong, blame the client. I remember my barrister (I had one once) blamed me for my ex being unreasonable with her and her barrister not negotiating. Suppose it’s the Kipling thing about keeping your mind when all those around you are losing theirs and blaming it upon you.

    Third criticism, yes, is a bit of a tricky law.

    With re to the law, the public think its possible to avoid a divorce by being nice to their spouse. So it is an unfair law and the law should aim at fairness. Like voting was linked to property and there is a residual association there, the same with divorce and blame and the law needs to be tidied up. My petition was frankly ridiculous and I thought it would be thrown out but wasn’t. Makes a mockery of the system basing so much grief on so little evidence. Better to have a Scottish or US type system (where its unnecessary to blame someone, especially where conduct is not a factor) including with prenups.

    Like voting associated with property there is an association in the public between blame and divorce and it needs to be got rid of, or made proper as it is it is a mess that needs sorting out please. Sort of thing that the Scottish parliament sorted and wonder why the politicians cant here, not sure how you answered that point in the article Marilyn, think you glossed over it with glib posh patronising legal speak. Have a nice day.

  2. JamesB says:

    Didn’t mean to sound that harsh towards end of the last comment, just frustrated by the lack of progress on the issue or explanation why not as it needs sorting out and am wondering why it is not addressed. Enjoyed the article thank you.

  3. JamesB says:

    There remains a residual association between conduct and divorce in the public mind that needs to be dissolved through the expunging of the historical facts upon which divorce has traditionally been granted and replacing them with a more appropriate fact to be proved such as if either party to the marriage believes it is over. Alternatively, and not the preferred solution in my opinion, the burden of proof should be higher. What we have at the moment is neither here nor there. See I can do lawyer speak.

  4. K says:

    Please help me my life is in total melt down and I can’t afford a divorce. I hate the man I’m stuck with by marriage. He has destroyed my daughter by abusing her and destroyed my other children’s lives by what he has done. I can’t be stuck to him by a marriage certificate.

  5. JamesB says:

    In Scotland its either 1 year with consent or 2 years without consent. That is better system. Show how ‘amicable’ these UB divorce petitions are, since the new reasonable law came in in Scotland hardly any divorces use the UB path, probably because that route is BS and brings the legal profession and establishment into disrepute.

  6. M says:

    Hi would welcome input on this ex gone for divorce 2yrs with consent happy to give. Been fair with finances but ex narcissist got proof that she was more than happy with financial arrangements all agreed no problems then suddenly she wasn’t happy typical narcissist moving the goalposts however consent order had already been granted hooray! Then 5 days later got letter it had been granted in error. She then had neck to suggest x amount extra which I ain’t got and she suggested I could borrow it!!! Concerned not paying her a penny more but want this finished. Don’t want a court hearing as narcissists can present a very plausible front to people unfamiliar with them. Have blocked contact with her. Anything you could suggest. Mediation with a narcissist is a complete of waste of time as they only see what they want to see. Just want to protect myself against her and get totally free of her

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