Do we need to reform divorce law?

Exactly 40 years have passed since Tini Owens was wed to her husband, Hugh Owens, in 1978. Having purchased property, raised a family and even built a prosperous business, the couple lived together happily for quite some time: however, due to an eventual breakdown in the relationship, it could not be “ever after”.

Things came to a head in 2015, when Tini moved out of the family home due to feelings of isolation, neglect and frustration. Many would argue that this would be reasonable grounds for divorce: after all, no one wants to stay in a loveless marriage.

Unfortunately for Tini, her husband begs to differ. Despite her affair in 2015, Hugh Owens contested Tini’s petition for divorce, disputing all 27 allegations of “unreasonable behaviour.” According to Hugh, the couple still have a few more years to “enjoy” of their marriage.

Locked in an unhappy relationship, Tini took to the high court in search of resolution – but it was not to be. Mrs Owens’ petition was not only rejected by the high court, but also the court of appeal, who claimed her husband’s behaviour was “to be expected in a marriage” and that “parliament has decreed that it is not a ground for divorce that you find yourself in a wretchedly unhappy marriage”.

The sad truth is they’re absolutely right. Under UK law, the only way to obtain a divorce with a spouse’s consent is by proving the marriage broke down due to adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion. If a couple are separated for five years, either party can successfully petition for divorce regardless of consent.

Sir James Munby, then President of the Family Division, spoke against this aspect of the law during the Owens V Owens case in the court of appeal in 2017, arguing that procedures were based on “hypocrisy and lack of intellectual honesty”.

Tini Owens’ case may have made the headlines, but the circumstances are not exceptional by any means. The archaic legislation that prevents what’s referred to as ‘no fault divorce’ forces individuals stuck in loveless relationships to stick it out and suffer irrespective of the impact on their mental health.

Fortunately, couples wishing to divorce could soon benefit from reformation to this long-outdated law under new proposals from Justice Secretary David Gauke, who believes current UK divorce laws are “out of touch with modern life.”

On 15 September 2018, the Ministry of Justice published a consultation paper titled ‘Reform of the legal requirements for divorce’. Under proposed changes, “the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage” would be the sole grounds for divorce, allowing couples to commence divorce proceedings without the need to provide evidence of wrongdoing.

The consultation further proposes a new notification process whereby one or both parties could simply notify the court of their intention to divorce, removing the opportunity for the other spouse to contest the application.

“We think that the blame game that currently exists helps nobody,” said Gauke.

“It creates unnecessary antagonism and anxiety at an already trying time for couples.”

The consultation will close on December 10thof this year. If successful, cases like that of Tini Owens’ will soon be a thing of the past – and it’s about time.