Owens v Owens – highlighting the need for no-fault divorce

On Friday 24th March, the Court of Appeal dismissed Mrs Owens’ appeal in a defended divorce case, effectively stating that she must remain married to her husband or wait until she has been separated from him for five years.

Mrs Owens petitioned for divorce as all divorcing couples do, relying on the one ground for divorce, namely that the marriage had irretrievably broken down. As evidence of that ground, she relied on the fact of ‘unreasonable behaviour’.  Alleging that her husband had behaved in such a way that she could not reasonably be expected to live with him, she relied on 5 incidents of behaviour in her petition filed on 6 May 2015.

On 16 July 2015 Mr Owens indicated that he intended to defend the divorce and on the 10th August 2015 he filed an answer to the petition stating that he wished to defend and denying that the marriage had irretrievably broken down.

Mrs Owens amended her petition to add further particulars of behaviour and the husband responded to them. The matter came before His Honour Judge Tolson QC. HHJ Tolson found that the behaviour relied upon was not unreasonable in the context of the marriage and denied Mrs Owens a decree of divorce.

The Court of Appeal in examining the matter upheld the decision and dismissed the appeal.

Speaking immediately following the judgement, Resolution’s Chair, Nigel Shepherd said:

“This judgement will obviously come as a disappointment to Mrs Owens, and absolutely underlines the urgent need for no-fault divorce.  Nobody should be compelled to remain in a marriage against their will, yet judges’ hands are tied by the current divorce law.  Sadly, all too often, couples are forced to play the blame game, and today’s decision demonstrates why this needs to change.

As the President of the Family Division rightly asks in the judgement, ‘ought the decision whether or not a marriage should be dissolved be one for the parties which the State is not in a position to question?”

“At Resolution we have long campaigned for reform in order to reduce conflict and support separating couples to resolve matters amicably, notably at our very successful lobby of Parliament last November, which was received positively by MPs from all parties.

“The simple fact is, this case should not have been necessary.  Only by implementing a no-fault divorce system can we ensure such a situation doesn’t happen again.

“That is why we are today repeating our call on the Government to change the law and introduce no-fault divorce.  The reasons for marriages breaking down are often complex and rarely will both spouses agree to them.

“It is simply wrong that, in 2017, anyone who can’t afford to put their lives on hold for two years whilst waiting to divorce is required to apportion blame.  And asking judges to rule on who did what is unacceptable in a modern society.  People need to be helped to focus on the future not pushed into recriminating on the past.

“No-fault divorce is widely supported.  69% of the public want to remove blame, as do – among others – Sir James Mumby, President of the Family Division; Sir Paul Coleridge, chairman of the Marriage Foundation’ and Lord Wilson of Culworth, a Supreme Court Judge.

“ Successive governments have dragged their heels on this issue for too long.  Owens v Owens must be the spark that ignites a fundamental change in our divorce law. “

Careful drafting of divorce petitions is absolutely essential if you are to successfully petition for divorce and resist any attempts to defend a divorce petition.  Our specialist family team can advise you on divorce law and procedure.  Call us today on 023 9267 5555 or email scook@a2law.co.uk to see if we can help you.