Owens v Owens: Supreme Court dismisses wife's appeal

Glen Norman
July 27, 2018

There are calls for Britain's antiquated divorce laws to be changed, after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a woman who wants to separate from her husband must remain "locked in a loveless" married.

Under current United Kingdom law, which dates back 50 years, anyone seeking divorce must show that a marriage has broken down due to adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion, or live apart from his or her spouse for five years.

Grounds include, separation, adultery, desertion, or if one person has behaved in such a way that their partner can not be reasonably expected to live with them. The only other way is to first live apart for five years.

Speaking after the judgment was delivered, Mrs Owens' solicitor, Simon Beccle, said many people would find the Supreme Court decision "hard to understand".

Image Credit Wu Jianxiong  Unsplash
Image Credit Wu Jianxiong Unsplash

One of the appeal judges said it would be down to parliament to bring in "no fault" divorces on demand.

They said Mrs Owens had failed to establish that her marriage had, legally, irretrievably broken down and dismissed her challenge to a ruling by Judge Robin Tolson.

After all, just because Mr Owens won doesn't mean his marriage is saved: his wife has left him and that isn't going to change.

"The Supreme Court judges had to make their ruling within the context of the current law".

Another judge, court president Brenda Hale, said it was a "very troubling case" and she had only "reluctantly" agreed to dismiss the appeal. But she said reforming the current fault-based system is only part of the issue facing the 110,000 couples who divorced each year in England.

Mr Owens, 80, will not agree to a divorce and denies his wife's allegations about his behaviour.

She said her husband behaved unreasonably and she should not be expected to stay married.

Another said Parliament had "decreed" that being in a "wretchedly unhappy marriage" was not a ground for divorce.

The couple has two adult children and Owens argued that there was "no prospect whatsoever" that she and her husband would ever live together again.

Philip Marshall QC, who leads Tini's legal team, told the supreme court that a "modest shift" of focus in the interpretation of legislation was required.

Lady Hale also confirmed that the behaviour complained of does not have to be the cause of the breakdown of the marriage and gave her strong concern that the trial judge may have underplayed the cumulative effect of a great many small incidents said to be indicative of authoritarian, demeaning and humiliating conduct over a period of time (at para 50).

Previous courts found that her examples of his bad behaviour - needed to grant a divorce - were "flimsy" and "isolated incidents", with the case eventually making it's way to the Supreme Court.

In fact, parliament has already passed the Family Law Act 1996, which would have introduced a no-fault divorce law.

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