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Owens v Owens - No Fault Divorce

View profile for Vikkie Chetcuti-Gee
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The call for no-fault divorce in England and Wales was renewed this morning after the Supreme Court handed down judgment in the highly publicised case of Owens v Owens.

By way of brief background, Mr Owens is 80 and Mrs Owens is 68. They have been married since 1978 and have two adult children together. Mrs Owens left the family home in 2015, although she had been contemplating divorce since 2012. In May 2015, Mrs Owens started a divorce petition based on Mr Owens’ unreasonable behaviour. The test for unreasonable behaviour is that the court must be satisfied that the respondent’s (Mr Owens’) behaviour has been such that the petitioner (Mrs Owens) cannot reasonably be expected to live with him.

As was fairly standard until this case hit the press a few months ago, Mrs Owens’ solicitor had drafted inoffensive examples of Mr Owens’ ‘unreasonable behaviour’. Mr Owens indicated that he intended to defend the divorce on the basis that, in his view, the marriage had largely been successful. Although the judge in the County Court concluded that the marriage had broken down, he found that Mrs Owens had not met the test required. Mrs Owens appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal, but this appeal was also dismissed, which brings us to the appeal in the Supreme Court.

Much to the disappointment of many, the Supreme Court unanimously decided today to dismiss Mrs Owens’ appeal. This means she must remain married to Mr Owens for at least the next two years of her life (i.e. until she is 70), before she can petition for divorce on the basis that she and Mr Owens have been separated for five years.

Although the judges in the Supreme Court expressed their uneasiness at what this means, they found that the law had been applied correctly by the judge in the County Court and the Court of Appeal. They also deemed it inappropriate for the Supreme Court to intervene. They invited Parliament to consider changing the law surrounding divorce.  

Introducing no-fault divorce in England and Wales would undoubtedly make the process easier and less painful for many people who are contemplating divorce. A Private Members’ Bill was introduced last week requiring the Government to review the current law and consider introducing a system of no-fault divorce. The date for the second reading at the House of Lords, which is a general debate on all aspects of the Bill, is yet to be announced. It will certainly be interesting to follow the progress of the Bill, but it could take a while for the law to be changed.

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