Aug 10, 2018
A court must be convinced that a marriage has irretrievably broken down before a divorce will be granted. The most common way in which husbands and wives in the UK demonstrate irretrievable breakdown is by showing that their partner’s behaviour has been unreasonable.
At one end of the scale is domestic violence. At the other, a whole hosts of annoyances and breaches of trust that can compound to meet the unreasonable behaviour threshold. Whether or not that threshold has been met (was the behaviour that unreasonable?) has been a major feature in many, many divorce cases over the years.
At the heart of this is the reality that what is unreasonable in one person’s eyes may be a perfectly normal behaviour in another’s. It begs the question: how unreasonable is ‘unreasonable’?
That was precisely the issue in the case of Mr and Mrs Owens, whose home life was very recently scrutinised by the Supreme Court. Mrs Owen had petitioned for divorce. The couple had been married for 37 years (she is now in her 60s, he in his 80s), but she said that their marriage was over. She didn’t want to be married to him any longer, citing his unreasonable behaviour, which included his humiliating her in public. Mr Owens defended the divorce petition, believing they had more years of marriage ahead of them.
The long and short of it was that the threshold for establishing unreasonable behaviour had not been met. As a consequence, Mrs Owens will probably have to remain in the marriage until such time as she is able to divorce her husband without his consent. That, it seems, will be in another two years’ time.
The case has re-energised calls for a system of ‘no-fault’ divorce. That would enable an unhappy person in an unhappy marriage to end it without having to cast blame on the other. It would relieve a heavy burden on many people who simply want a divorce without having to dredge up examples of the other’s sufficiently unreasonable behaviour.
Marriages sometimes don’t work out. Neither party may be at fault. Perhaps both are. Either way, blame can be divisive and damaging. There are certainly circumstances in which a married couple’s experience of the divorce process could be made easier (and perhaps even quicker and cheaper) if unreasonableness – in all its forms – could be removed from it.
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