Divorce in a Time of Lockdown – What Grounds Can You Rely On?
The National Lockdown has thrown together many couples not used to spending “24/7” time in each other’s company. Relationships will have strengthened for many couples, but others will be struggling. The fears, anxieties and money worries now looming over us all certainly won’t haven’t helped.
If your marriage is one of those unfortunate ones that is foundering, counselling hasn’t helped or won’t help, and you have come to the decision that divorce is your only option, be aware that you need a formal court order before your divorce will be legally recognised.
Moreover our law does not recognise the concept of “legal/judicial separation” so if you decide to just physically separate without divorcing, you should take professional advice on drawing up a contract in the form of a “separation agreement”. Normally this would be for a trial period but you could also agree to a longer-term separation.
The 3 grounds for divorce
In most cases couples opt for formal divorce rather than long-term separation, and it is important to appreciate that a court will only grant a divorce order if it is satisfied that at least one of the three recognised grounds for divorce exists.
In practice most couples will fall under the first ground i.e. “irretrievable breakdown of marriage” but to give you the full picture, the grounds for divorce in full are (all quotes are straight from the Divorce Act) –
- Irretrievable breakdown of marriage
This is by far the most commonly relied on ground for divorce: “A court may grant a decree of divorce on the ground of the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage if it is satisfied that the marriage relationship between the parties to the marriage has reached such a state of disintegration that there is no reasonable prospect of the restoration of a normal marriage relationship between them.”
The court may take into account “any facts or circumstances which may be indicative of the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage” and may also accept evidence that –
a. The spouses have not lived together for “a continuous period of at least one year immediately prior to the date of the institution of the divorce action”;
b. The spouse being sued for divorce has committed adultery and the other spouse “finds it irreconcilable with a continued marriage relationship”; or
c. The spouse being sued for divorce “has in terms of a sentence of a court been declared an habitual criminal and is undergoing imprisonment as a result of such sentence”.
However: “If it appears to the court that there is a reasonable possibility that the parties may become reconciled through marriage counsel, treatment or reflection, the court may postpone the proceedings in order that the parties may attempt a reconciliation.”
- Mental illness
The court must be satisfied of two things here –
i) The spouse must have been admitted to or detained in an institution under our mental health legislation as a patient, State patient or mentally ill convicted prisoner, and “has, for a continuous period of at least two years immediately prior to the institution of the divorce action, not been discharged unconditionally”, and
ii) “After having heard the evidence of at least two psychiatrists, of whom one shall have been appointed by the court, that the defendant is mentally ill and that there is no reasonable prospect that he will be cured of his mental illness.”
- A state of continuous unconsciousness “by reason of a physical disorder”
Again the court must be satisfied of two things here –
i) The unconsciousness must have lasted “for a continuous period of at least six months immediately prior to the institution of the divorce action”, and
ii)“After having heard the evidence of at least two medical practitioners, of whom one shall be a neurologist or a neurosurgeon appointed by the court, that there is no reasonable prospect that the defendant will regain consciousness.”
Having grounds for divorce is not the end of the story
You will need also to satisfy the court that “the provisions made or contemplated with regard to the welfare of any minor or dependent child of the marriage are satisfactory or are the best that can be effected in the circumstances”.
Consider also, and prepare for, questions around division of assets and maintenance.