Landmark Supreme Court case on woman seeking divorce over 'loveless marriage'

Landmark Supreme Court case on woman seeking divorce over 'loveless marriage'

On Thursday 17th May, the highest Court in the country heard Mrs Owen's Supreme Court appeal; the final step to decide whether Tini Owens is allowed to divorce her millionaire husband, Hugh Owens, following a lengthy process with multiple court hearings. The Judges retired to consider their verdict and will deliver their Judgement at a later date. The verdict will have a significant impact on the family law landscape and reignite further debate about whether the current legislation is suitable in modern society.

So how did we get to this point?

The tale of Tini and Hugh

Tini and Hugh married in 1978 and have two now adult children. Over the years they built up a significant assets together which include a mushroom growing business, four houses including holiday homes in France and Wales. They had a comfortable lifestyle with a steady income stream from their business.

Things soured in the relationship and Tini became very unhappy, so much so that she consulted solicitors in 2012 and a draft divorce petition was sent to Hugh. Tini later decided not to pursue this.

Tini admitted to being unfaithful to Hugh and said that she had been having an affair with another man on and off in 2012. Bitter arguments followed but Hugh claimed eventually that he had "moved on" and had "forgiven" Tini for her "fling".

The couple separated in 2015 when Tini moved out of the family home, "the Manor" into a neighbouring farmhouse a matter of meters away. Tini filed for divorce in May 2015.

There is only one ground for divorce and that is that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. In order to show this, a petitioner (the person who starts the divorce) has to establish one of five facts.

These are:

  • Adultery
  • Behaviour of the Respondent in which the Petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with (often called "unreasonable behaviour'')
  • Desertion for 2 years
  • 2 years separation with consent
  • 5 years separation

As you will see, three of the facts are based upon a period of separation; the shortest being two years. As the petition was issued within the first two years of separation Tini only had two options available to her. These were adultery or "unreasonable behaviour".

There was no evidence that Hugh had been unfaithful and she could not rely upon her own adultery. That left her with one option. She had to show that the impact of Hugh's behaviour meant she could not reasonably be expected to live with him.

In her petition she said that Hugh prioritised work over home life, suffered from mood swings, berated and undermined her in front of her friends and family and that she generally felt unloved. She felt that she was trapped in a loveless marriage.

Despite Tini's views, Hugh did not accept that the marriage had broken down irretrievably and decided to defend the divorce. As a result, Mr and Mrs Owens would have to battle it out on whether their marriage had indeed broken down.

The case is particularly unusual because the majority of divorces are uncontested. Even if one party does not necessarily agree that there should be a divorce, one tends to take a pragmatic approach because the costs of challenging it are so high and a defence is generally unlikely to succeed.

In Hugh's defence he said "I am somebody who teases his wife", "I do it all the time. I know she doesn't always appreciate it". He even said that the couple "have a few years left to enjoy".

At first instance, the case was heard by His Honour Judge Tolson QC. Judge Tolson analysed the petition and heard evidence from both Tini and Hugh and concluded that her allegations were "exaggerated" and "of the kind to be expected in marriage" and refused to allow the divorce to go ahead.

Tini appealed to the decision and the case was heard by the Court of Appeal in March 2017. The Court upheld the decision of Judge Tolson. One of the Judges, Sir James Munby, the most senior family Judge, said that the job of the appeal judges was to "apply the law" and in doing so the appeal had to be refused.

He said "it is not a ground for divorce if you find yourself in a wretchedly unhappy marriage – people may say it should be". Sir James indicated that the law as it currently stands needed to be examined.

The Supreme Court heard the legal submissions from both Tini and Hugh's barristers and will decide whether the divorce should be granted. The Judges retired to consider their verdict and will deliver their Judgement at a later date.

So why is this case so important?

This case is likely to reignite the debate on the appropriateness of the current legislation, the need for reform and the introduction of "no fault divorce". If Tini eventually gets the result she wants, she will have had to go through a lengthy process with multiple hearings and had to provide evidence of Hugh's behaviour and how that made her feel. This would have been horrible for both Tini and Hugh and would have increased the party's hostility to one another.

The current legislation relies on apportioning blame if the petitioner wants an immediate divorce. This can lead to animosity and can cause difficulties when trying to reach a solution regarding the finances and children. How the Court has assessed the evidence within a contested divorce for the past 40 years has now been challenged with this case, bringing more uncertainty and frustration about the current Law.

It is hoped that an introduction of a "no fault divorce" system would avoid couples having to apportion blame or provide evidence to obtain a divorce. There is increasing support for this and it has been backed by Judges including Baroness Hale and Sir James Munby. Resolution (the National Association of Family Lawyers) are also calling for changes in the law.

Some oppose such reforms saying that it would make obtaining a divorce easier, would negatively affect the sanctity of marriage and it could increase divorce rates.

The government have said that the "no fault" divorce proposals will be considered as part of the general family reforms. Will this be the case which sparks a change in the Law?

To find out more or discuss your individual requirements in further detail, our specialist Family Law Solicitors can help. Our advice is bespoke, confidential and totally designed around you, helping you come to the best conclusion for both you and your family.

Contact us today on 01603 693500 or email us using the 'Make an enquiry' form. Appointments available at our Norwich, North Walsham, and Sheringham offices.

*This article is provided for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or other professional advice.