The Daily Telegraph
Judge condemns divorce laws as wife told she must stay in ‘loveless’ marriage
President of High Court’s family division criticises forcing unhappy partners to prove bad behaviour
THE HIGH Court’s most senior family judge has heavily criticised laws that force unhappy partners seeking a divorce to prove that their husband or wife has behaved unreasonably.
In a scathing judgment, Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court, said that divorce law was based on “hypocrisy and lack of intellectual honesty” and that couples must engage in “consensual, collusive, manipulation” of the law.
He said that because the law says a “wretchedly unhappy” marriage is not a good enough reason to grant a divorce, he has no choice but to force a woman to stay married against her will.
Sir James ruled in the Court of Appeal that Tini Owens, 66, cannot get a divorce because her husband of almost 40 years, Hugh Owens, 78, will not admit that the marriage has broken down.
Mrs Owens said her husband had acted unreasonably by snapping at her in public and in front of their housekeeper and once spending a pub dinner “with his head resting in his hands”.
These are not sufficient grounds for divorce, meaning she must stay married even though the marriage is “love- less and desperately unhappy”, judges ruled.
His comments came after a campaign led by family lawyers for “no fault” divorces, which would allow couples to split without having to cite the bad behaviour of one partner as the reason.
Lady Justice Hallett said that she agreed with the ruling “with no enthusiasm whatsoever” and urged Mr Owens to reconsider.
“I very much regret that our decision will leave the wife in a very unhappy situation,” she said.
Mrs Owens described several disputes which she said left her “embarrassed and upset”.
They included an argument the pair had in an airport in Mexico over a gift for their housekeeper.
Mrs Owens alleged that her husband “lost his temper” when she bought a silver tortoise necklace instead of the gift that he had thought was suitable.
Mr Owens had once spent a pub dinner sitting in silence and “often with his head resting in his hands and his eyes closed,” she said.
On another occasion he had upbraided her in front of the housekeeper for failing to put cardboard into a skip correctly.
But Mr Owens said her accounts were “exaggerated and inaccurate”, and that he had been quiet during the pub dinner because he was tired after “a day in the garden”.
Judge Robin Tolson, in the family court, said last year that Mrs Owens was “more sensitive than most wives” and these had been “minor disputes” and not serious enough to warrant a divorce.
In his judgment Sir James said: “The simple fact, to speak plainly, is that in this respect the law which the judges have to apply and the procedures they have to follow are based on hypocrisy and lack of intellectual honesty.”
Sir James said that Mrs Owens had no choice but to wait until February 2020 for a divorce, “assuming that she and her husband are still alive”, under laws which require couples to live apart for five years if one partner does not agree.
Under a law which has remained unchanged since 1969 couples must cite either adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion as the reason for their split, unless they have lived apart for more than two years.
Lawyers said the ruling would lead to couples making more lurid allegations against each other in order to be sure of a divorce being granted.