The Supreme Court has told Tini Owens (68) that she must remain married to Mr Owens (80) until 2020 despite his “authoritarian, demeaning and humiliating conduct”.
Poor Mrs Owens.
But of course Mrs Owens is far from poor. Mr Owens is not the first husband who has wanted to oppose his wife’s application for divorce, but this may be the first couple who have each had the means to take their case all the way to the Supreme Court. I dread to think what it must have cost them in legal fees: a drop in the ocean for them no doubt, but I suspect most of us would have preferred to buy a property with that sort of money.
This is one reason why divorces are rarely contested: it’s expensive and gets you nowhere.
Most people are a little more realistic than Mr Owens appears to be, still apparently clinging to the idea that his wife will go back to him and they will “rub along together” if not live happily ever after. Those who don’t want their marriage to end usually accept sooner or later that they can’t force their spouse to love them or live with them and will agree to go ahead with a divorce.
The Supreme Court “very reluctantly” concluded that it was not for them to change the law and we now have to wait and see whether Parliament will do it. Those opposing a change from our fault-based system argue that leaving a marriage should not be made easy. I suspect that none of them have ever been divorced – it’s never easy!
Most people have made the decision to end their marriage before they find out how it actually works; many are shocked to discover that one of them has to blame the other for bad behaviour during the marriage in order to get a divorce. Some can wait until they’ve been separated for two years but if they need to finalise their financial arrangements that’s often not possible.
If Mr Owens had agreed the marriage had broken down the divorce would have gone through on the nod, no judge would have queried it however ‘flimsy’ the behaviour his wife alleged may have sounded. This is how we usually get around our out of date law; after all, which of us can say we’ve never behaved unreasonably? The problem is of course that emotions are running high around a divorce and having to allege bad behaviour, however mildly, just adds fuel to the fire. The contents of a behaviour petition are often agreed between husband and wife before it’s sent to the court. The other thing that has changed is the claim for costs of behaviour petitions. Years ago the petitioner would automatically claim for their costs of that petition – after all if you’ve behaved badly you should be made to pay for it. Of course the cost of petitions has risen enormously (both court fees and solicitors’ costs) but often now the petitioner will not claim their costs which is another sign that a behaviour petition is reluctantly issued as the only means to a necessary end.
Behaviour petitions are still the most common. In 2016 they accounted for 45% of 105,978 petitions issued. (Adultery: 11%, desertion: 0.6%, two years separation: 27%, five years separation: 15%)
Although ‘poor’ Mrs Owens will have to wait until she’s been separated for five years before she can issue another divorce petition, hers will remain a highly unusual case. And until the government has finished dealing with a bigger and more pressing divorce, almost half of petitions will continue to be based on ‘flimsy’ behaviour grounds. So if you receive one, or have to issue one, please see it for what it is – words on a piece of paper which will be read by an official in a court a long way away from you. These words will enable you to conclude your financial settlement, and your divorce, and move on with your life. They can also upset you … but only if you choose to let them.