Rights and an English divorce

Mrs Owens and the Supreme Court

 

Mrs Owens has been given permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. She is challenging the decision of a circuit judge and the Court of Appeal (Owens v Owens [2017] EWCA Civ 182, [2017] 4 WLR 74) to find that, though her marriage had unquestionably broken down, she failed to prove that her husband had behaved in a way which showed that she could not reasonably be expected to live with him.

 

The relevant law is set out at Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 s 1. There is one ground for divorce: either party to a marriage can petition for divorce (A) ‘on the ground that the marriage has broken down irretrievably’; but a court can only say there is irretrievable breakdown if one of five ‘facts’ are proved including (s 1(2)(b)): ‘that the respondent [(B)] has behaved in such a way that [A] cannot reasonably be expected to live with [(B)]’.

 

Though they considered that Mrs Owens’s (ie A’s in her case) marriage had broken down irretrievably, the Court of Appeal felt unable to say that she could not be expected to live with Mr Owens (see eg comment at ‘Owens: a dead marriage but no divorce’ [2017] New Law Journal 31 March, David Burrows; and here). The logic of the court’s conclusion, based only on the words of s 1, is difficult to follow. But what of its logic, in terms of Mrs Owens’s personal – or ‘human’ – rights (under European Convention 1950 and generally)?

 

European Convention 1950 and Mrs Owens’s rights

 

In Owens Sir James Munby P commented on Mrs Owens’s advocate’s assertion that European Convention 1950 Arts 8 and 12 supported her case. He said, of Mr Owens’s reply to this assertion, with which he agreed, that there is ‘no Convention right to be divorced nor, if domestic law permits divorce, is there any Convention right to a favourable outcome in such proceedings’.

 

Art 12 declares that those of ‘marriageable age have the right to marry’; and nothing is said of divorce. Art 8 deals with respect for a person’s ‘private and family life [and] his or her home’. Sir James described Mrs Owens’s advocate’s argument under Art 8 as:

 

[54] … He invites us to consider what level of ‘fault’ must be established to obtain a divorce and whether dispositive, or at least greater, weight should be given to the petitioner’s wishes and feelings. More profoundly, he invites us to consider whether the requirement to prove ‘fault’ is consistent with Articles 8 and 12

 

If this was the advocates’ argument it was, indeed, an odd line for him to take. Section 1(2)(b) does not require anyone to prove ‘fault’. It asks an open question: has a spouse behaved in such a way that the other spouse cannot live with her or him? That need not be because they are at fault. It requires proof only that B has acted in a way that A ‘cannot reasonably be expected to live with’ B. A must be able to say that her marriage is dead (as in the Owens case, and as the court found). Each party surely should then be able to move on?

 

Respect for ‘private and family life’: rights to privacy

 

If European Convention 1950 is necessary to all this, Art 8 seems to me to be relevant. I cannot see that Art 12 has any relevance. It is difficult to see how respect for a person’s ‘private life’ (‘private and family’ are disjunctive: they mean two different things. They are not both part of the same concept) is consistent with requiring either party to a dead marriage to going on living with the other spouse (as the court knew was likely to be the effect of their decision for Mrs Owens).

 

Looked at as a question of right separate from European Convention 1950, it is necessary to find a duty to which the right is corollary (or reflective). Do I have a duty to live with someone I no longer want to share a home with? If there is no marriage the answer is resoundingly: no. If I am married to that person, why is my duty any different? If it is different, does not the right not to be discriminated against (Art 14) apply (marriage is an ‘other status’ as referred to in Art 14).

 

In law spouses must make arrangements for financial support for one another (or the court can order it: Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 Pt 2). That is a statutory duty bred of a right to financial support from the weaker spouse (the same does not apply if we are not married). That right would be protected – enhanced even – if Mrs Owens’s marriage is dissolved.

 

But to find – as did the Court of Appeal – a right vested in Mr Owens to expect of Mrs Owens a form of conjugal cohabitation (and thus no right in Mrs Owens to claim financial support till her marriage is dissolved) is not in any statute. Is such a right implied by English law? That it is, is the logic of the Court of Appeal’s decision.

 

Does the requirement to live in an unwanted and loveless relationship interfere with a person’s ‘family life [and] home’? Common sense – and, it must be hoped, the law – must surely say ‘yes’? If MCA 1973 s 1(2)(b) says what the Court of Appeal says it says – and I do not think it does require them to find as they did in Owens – then Mrs Owens needs also to seek a declaration of incompatibility with her rights (in Arts 8 and 14) under Human Rights Act 1998 s 4.