The end of a marriage is inevitably an emotional, complex experience that ultimately results in the division of families. Similarly, the law of divorce is also quite complex. Courts face the strenuous task of not only dividing the financial provisions in cases of children and property allocations, but they have to initially approve the divorce according to legislation. Under section 1(1) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, only one ground for divorce is established and that is to prove that a marriage has irretrievably broken down.1 The recent Court of Appeal’s surprising decision in Owens v Owens (2017) has provoked considerable amounts of criticism on this particular aspect of the law of divorce.2 The Court ultimately refused the plaintiff from acquiring the divorce due to the current legislation and this invited criticism on the largely fault-based standards indicating that the English law on divorce is antiquated. This essay will aim to analyze the decision made in Owens v Owens and the substantial setback created for divorcing couples due to the outdated divorce laws. Though, English law on divorce does currently operate based on fault and non-fault based facts, the essay will suggest a further need for reform in that there should be a pure no-fault divorce factor to reduce conflicts among the parties involved.
The ruling in Owens v Owens aroused scrutiny in regards to problems and inadequacies in the law of fault-based divorce. The petitioner, Mrs. Owens, filed for a divorce from Mr. Owens based on his unreasonable behaviour according to section 1(2)(b) of MCA 1973.3 The behaviour that she complained of included Mr. Owen’s lack of affection and attention, prioritising his work over family life, frequent arguments between the parties, and speaking about her in a disrespectful manner.4 It is assumed that most allegations of this particular kind would go through the courts undefended and thus, would require no proof of the alleged behaviour. However, in this case, Mr. Owens defended the divorce and stated that the marriage had not deteriorated despite the parties leading separate lives.5 In regards to section 1(2)(b) of the MCA 1973, it is required that the plaintiff shows proof that the other party has behaved in a manner where the appellant cannot reasonably be expected to live with the individual afterwards.6 Based on this, the Court of Appeal decided that the divorce should not be granted to Mrs. Owens because there is no proof of such behaviour on Mr. Owens’ behalf.7 Therefore, since one party does not agree to the divorce, it is only after 5 years of separation that Mrs. Owens will finally be eligible for a decree nisi of divorce even if her husband still objects to it.8 Unfortunately, till then, due to the current law of divorce, Mrs. Owens will have to remain married although she can be living in a different house separate from Mr. Owens. Thus, it is considered to be unjust that Mrs. Owens is left in a disadvantageous situation and must remain in a loveless and unhappy marriage.9,10 Clearly their relationship had broken down and Mrs. Owens was desperate to bring the marriage to an end and reach a financial settlement that would enable her to move on. As will be discussed, the judges of the Court of Appeal did not agree with the law for the reason the decision was unfair and made on outdated laws, but they were unable to divert from legislation.
While it can be suggested that Mr. and Mrs. Owens’ petition for divorce was on the fault-based facts of adultery or unreasonable behaviour, the legal basis to approve a divorce plea is provided in section 1(1) of the MCA 1973 in that the plaintiff must prove that the marriage has irretrievably broken down.11 Furthermore, an individual who brings forth a divorce appeal must be able to prove that the marriage has deteriorated according to one of the five facts listed in section 1(2) of the MCA 1973, which includes adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion for two years, or separation of either 2 years with consent or 5 years without consent.12 As aforementioned, though the judges were not fond of the outcome, the Court of Appeal had applied the law correctly by stating that Mr. Owens’ behaviour was not such that Mrs. Owens could not reasonably be expected to live with him. However, President Sir James Munby and Lady Justice Hallett did not agree with the approach of the law and evidently referred to it being outdated.13 In his judgement, Sir James Munby said that the laws and practices that the judges have to follow are typically based on hypocrisy and lack of intellectual honesty.14 Unfortunately, the judges in this case had their hands tied by the law as they could not look past the legislation despite the fact they were not content with the consequence of applying the appropriate laws.15 While the judges of the Court of Appeal were unable to overturn the decision made in the case due to the current law, laws relating to divorce are considered to be out of date in that fault needs to be identified to the Court for approval of divorce. As a result, this causes unnecessary blame and litigation between the parties. Due to the need of proof of fault at the time of divorce, couples are ultimately forced to embarrass each other, whether sincerely or not, to support the idea that one of them has to be at fault for their separation.16 This is archaic as it is cruel, generally causing two individuals to become hostile and bitter towards each other. The concept of proving fault comes from historic legal practice where the Church of England saw divorce to be contrary to the public policy and one had to have a legitimate reason as to separation known as a matrimonial offence.17 On the contrary, nowadays in modern times, divorce is far less stigmatized and very rarely contested.18 Thus, it is to be considered that the introduction of true no-fault divorce into English divorce law would be highly encouraged.
Based on the ruling from Owens v Owens and the indication that the current legislation on divorce is outdated, the law should be amended to allow true no-fault divorce. The no-fault facts found in the MCA 1973 were previous reforms made to the law of divorce.19 However, based on the decision in Owens v Owens, it is evident that such reforms are not enough and that there is a pressing need for further amendments on the law of divorce in England. Couples should have the option to decide jointly that their marriage had broken down irretrievably, without either party being required to satisfy the courts of any other facts.20 This modification would allow parties to get a divorce without blame and without increasing animosity between themselves. Clearly, once a party has decided on divorce and proceeds to the Court, the differences within the marriage are obviously irreconcilable. Either party should not be compelled to remain in an unhappy relationship due to the current law and it is unjust one party cannot obtain a divorce if the other party objects to it. Furthermore, with the introduction of a true no-fault divorce, the individuals would not have to wait 2 or 5 years to obtain a decree nisi of divorce. At the moment, it is hugely unhelpful that there is still a factor in the law of divorce which requires parties to blame one another if they wish to obtain a divorce in the first two years of separation. As Richard Bacon suggests, this reform would be added to the current legislation and it would only apply when both parties have agreed and signed such a declaration.21 Evidently, a pure no-fault divorce would make the divorce process a predominately administrative procedure rather than largely court-based.22 This would allow individuals to simply state that their marriage does not satisfy their own standards as opposed to being forced to prove to their court with evidence that their marriage has broken down. However, the reform of introducing a true no-fault divorce will not completely eliminate the existing provisions of the law. Those requirements which demand the allocation of fault and blame would still be available to those who wish to avail themselves to them.23
Further to the potential reform, according to the Law Commission, a marriage that has broken down is considered to be an empty shell and the content of good divorce law must aim to minimize hostility and humiliation amongst the parties involved. 24 It should also allow for maximum fairness between the plaintiff and the respondent.25 If one spouse wishes to separate from the other party, then there is little value in forcing the couple to remain married. With a no-fault divorce, the separation will happen immediately, assuming the parties have undergone consultation, inevitably resulting in less conflict between both parties. Whereas, under the current law, finding fault prolongs the divorce process and increases the risk of hostility, especially in situations of financial difficulties.26 Realistically, it is simply unjust for anyone wanting a divorce to put their lives on hold for 2 or 5 years due to the fact they are required to find fault in the other party involved. Thus, according to Baroness Hale, a no-fault divorce should be implemented in order to lighten the need for allegations of blame.27
Additionally, it is notable to take into consideration whether the right to divorce is a human right.28 Generally, forcing an individual to remain married against their wishes would be considered an infringement on their right to marry or right to family life.29 With the introduction of a true no-fault divorce, parties will be able to settle disputes with less conflicts and move on with their lives. Furthermore, in order for the general reform to allow a true no-fault divorce, it is suggested that the content of this particular divorce, especially for those who are parents, should not only revolve around their own standards of the divorce mentioned above, but should prioritize the interests of children.30 In the case of a fault-based divorce, it is highly likely that bitterness is increased amongst the parents as they try to prove who is the better parent in terms of child custody. It is to be noted that the introduction of a pure no-fault divorce takes into consideration doing the right thing for children and assuring that their best-interests are taken into regard when approving the divorce.31 Unfortunately, the current law on determining matrimonial fault is failing to achieve the objective put forth by the Law Commission.32