Continuing the debate around calls for ‘divorce without blame’, agony aunt and author Virginia Ironside has suggested that people trapped in unhappy, lonely, and isolated marriages should grin and bear it rather than seeking divorce.
Ironside’s claims came in response to a recent case in which a woman seeking divorce after 39 years of marriage had her application refused by a judge after deeming her grounds of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ were not quite unreasonable enough. Instead, the petitioner Tini Owens was advised to wait a further five years feeling “unloved, isolated and alone” in a marriage she has no wish to be a part of. Mrs Owens is now turning to the court of appeal to overturn the ruling.
Under the UK family law system, grounds for divorce must fall within five categories, the most common being ‘unreasonable behaviour’, which may be used to cover a wide variety of different circumstances and is often confused with the Americanism ‘irreconcilable differences’. Unfortunately, there is not currently an option for couples in the UK who wish to separate without assigning blame or fault to one or other party, meaning that many people are forced to remain in unhappy marriages or live apart until they have passed the benchmark of two to five years and can divorce without fear of the other party contesting their application.
For Ironside and judge James Munby, however, finding yourself in “a wretchedly unhappy marriage” is not good enough, and petitioners like Mrs Owens simply have “different expectations of marriage”, or are “the sort who finds insult and cruelty in every breath their partner takes.” What, then, should our expectations of marriage be? Surely, anyone in a romantic partnership deserves to feel loved, supported and content. Surely, if a person claims to be unhappy then it should not be for anyone else to decide otherwise.
Commenting on the case, Philip Marshall QC said that “it is extraordinarily unusual in modern times for a court to dismiss a petition for divorce” and there are no doubt many other factors to consider in the proceedings, but Mrs Owens’ appeal raises an important question about the process of separation in the UK and the need for an alternative option for couples seeking a less antagonistic approach.
At present, mediation, arbitration and collaborative family law are available as faster, cheaper and more private methods of dispute resolution, and can help to reduce animosity between separating couples. But when a decision cannot be reached through these alternatives, the process becomes more complicated and inevitably results in taking the case to the family courts. If there were an option for no-fault divorce, however, the antagonism and one-upmanship of the separation process could be avoided, and couples might be able to dissolve an unhappy marriage without fear of instigating court proceedings or being forced to stay in a loveless marriage for years.
Sometimes relationships simply come to an end, and it can be impossible to articulate why or how it happened. Accepting that fact and allowing separating couples to move on with dignity and the minimum of legal fuss would benefit both individuals and help to relieve the current strain on the family courts.
For more information on the different options for separation and to speak to an experienced, friendly family lawyer, visit www.franceslindsay.co.uk. Frances Lindsay & Co offers a different kind of family law – let us take the weight off your shoulders.Tags: arbitration, collaborative family law, divorce, divorce solicitor Thames Valley, divorce without blame, mediation, separation