Outdated Divorce Laws Place Tradition Above a Woman's Well-being
It is estimated that 42% of UK marriages now end in divorce, according to the Office of National Statistics. With such figures, it is easy to see why the narrative of a ‘quickie’ divorce, lamented by traditional conservatives as evidence of the decay of traditional family values, is so prevalent in today’s society. Yet, as the recent case of Tini Owens demonstrates, the institute of marriage and the process of divorce remains as rigid and patriarchal as ever.
Under the current law in England and Wales, if one party refuses to consent to a divorce, the onus falls to the opposing party to prove the marriage has broken down. This process usually involves providing evidence of adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion. Otherwise, a couple must live apart for five years before applying for a divorce.
As the Tini Owens case highlights, the grounds for divorce are both narrow and inflexible. Merely living in an unhappy marriage that has naturally reached its conclusion, is not a satisfactory reason for divorce under current law. This is due to the legal requirement that forces couples to place blame on one party in order to obtain a divorce.
During the proceedings of this case, Tini alleged that her husband’s treatment of her lacked ‘love and affection’ and that he had ‘disparaged her’ in front of others. While neither of these statements alluded to any form of domestic violence, it was enough to make her marriage an unhappy and emotionally draining one. However, one judge commented that these examples were ‘flimsy and exaggerated’, a statement which set a dangerous precedence for other women seeking divorces on similar grounds.
This presumption that a wife must tolerate a certain level of behaviour or action from her spouse is dangerous. It essentially means she must wait until (or hope) a situation escalates far enough, for her to gain adequate grounds for divorce. This scenario is problematic on a number of levels. As Tini’s case shows, there may never be any instances of adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion on the part of the husband, forcing a wife to remain permanently trapped in an unhappy marriage. Otherwise, a wife may be forced to wait until she feels she has adequate grounds for divorce, but before that ever comes to fruition, she could become the victim of domestic abuse, or worse. The reality of violence at the hands of a spouse is a very real fear for numerous women, with domestic abuse affecting 1 in 4 women in their lifetime. By trapping women in unhappy, dysfunctional, or dead marriages, the law is condemning countless women to a life of misery - for the sake of what?
The introduction of ‘no-fault divorces’ could help ease the problem of having to place blame on one spouse. This would make it far easier for both women and men stuck in marriages where personalities, goals, or priorities have diverged, to get a divorce.
Tini Owens’ divorce case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, yet she still was denied the divorce she desired. While this reflects the unyielding nature of the law, and shone a media spotlight on the archaic nature of England and Wales current divorce laws, it is important to note that Mrs Owens had the money and resources available to her, to pursue this case to the top. So, what of the countless women trapped in broken marriages without the financial ability to pursue a long and costly divorce case, coupled with the knowledge that she could potentially come out the other side unsuccessful? Nobody gets married thinking their relationship will end in divorce, but the fact remains that marriages do fail. And while ‘no-fault divorces’ may help ease this problem, as long as the law remains founded on such narrow grounds for separation, women across the country will remain trapped in their marriages. This prompts us to ask, how far has the institute of marriage and process of divorce really evolved?