‘I’ve been working on a cocktail called Grounds for Divorce…’

Posted on: August 17th, 2018

The Supreme Court has now ruled that Tini Owens cannot have a divorce and is now in Purdah until 2020, shackled to her husband and unable to release herself as she failed to establish that his unreasonable behaviour caused the breakdown of their marriage.

Mrs Owens, married Mr Owens in 1978 and she issued her divorce petition in May 2015. Her husband applied to defend the proceedings and the matter came before the Court recorder in October 2015 for a case management hearing. The recorder gave Mrs Owens permission to amend her petition so as to expand upon the allegations of unreasonable behaviour.

Mrs Owens then provided 27 examples of her husband’s ‘patronising’, ‘unhelpful’ and ‘embarrassing’ behaviour. She recounted several notable incidents, including one where Mr Owens shouted at her at an airport in front of bewildered onlookers, another where he sulkily ignored her in a restaurant and a third where he loudly chastised her outside of the family home for failing to correctly recycle some cardboard.

Mrs Owens argued that a cumulation of more than 40 years of public humiliation perpetrated by her authoritarian husband had worn her down, causing her to feel unloved, unappreciated and unable to continue living with him.

Mr Owens, a wealthy retired mushroom farmer had other ideas. Despite his wife’s admission of an extra-marital affair in 2012, he told the court that he was of the view that the marriage could be saved. He eluded that although it had never been emotionally intense, the marriage had been successful and that he and Mrs Owens has learnt how to ‘rub along’.

The first judge to hear the case held that the incidents Mrs Owens described in her petition were ‘flimsy’ and exaggerated’, therefore did not constitute ‘unreasonable behaviour’. It was suggested that Mr Owens was simply ‘somewhat old-school’. The Court of Appeal agreed with this decision, albeit reluctantly.

Unhappy with the outcome, Mrs Owens appealed to the Supreme Court. In his judgement, Lord Wilson said that it was the court’s duty to:

  1. By reference to the allegations of the behaviour in the petition, determine what Mr Owens did or did not do
  2. Assess the effect which his behaviour had upon Mrs Owens in light of her personality and disposition and all of the other circumstances in which it occurred and
  3. To make an evaluation whether, as a result of the Mr Owens’ behaviour and in the light of its effect on his wife, an expectation that the Mrs Owens should continue to live with Mr Owens would be unreasonable.

The Supreme Court dismissed Mrs Owens’ appeal on the basis that behaviour Mrs Owens described did not sufficiently meet the above test. The judges have, however, called for a swift change in divorce laws, urging parliament to introduce ‘no fault’ divorce without delay.

In the meantime, what of Mrs Owens? Her husband will not consent to a divorce based on two years continuous separation, despite Mrs Owens leaving the matrimonial home in 2015, so, as it currently stands, she must now wait until 2020, when she can divorce Mr Owens after five years of continuous separation.

Mrs Owens cannot obtain a final financial order on divorce until she has secured a Decree Nisi, which is the second stage in the divorce process. Decree Nisi cannot be granted until her petition has been approved by the court. So in effect, her husband’s refusal to proceed with the divorce is likely to delay the financial aspects of her case. A cynic might argue that Mr Owens has deliberately chosen to thwart the divorce process in order to exert further financial and emotional control over his estranged wife. 

It is not entirely unreasonable to think Mrs Owens legal battle has been in vain yet what she has done is actually quite selfless as the profile of her case has bought to public consciousness the urgent need for reform of the current archaic divorce process. Accusations of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ lead to hostility between divorcing parties which must stop and the government must be urged to introduce a “no fault” option.

With Brexit and political infighting in the ascendance it is unlikely reform will happen before Tini can divorce her husband in 2020, but at least the profession can agree on one thing. The current divorce laws are not fit for purpose.