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Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act (UK): 1857

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 was an Act of Parliament passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Act modernised the law on divorce, moving litigation from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the civil courts, establishing a model of marriage based on contract rather than sacrament and widening the availability of divorce beyond the privileged few.

The new act allowed for a civil divorce procedure and gave courts the power to order ex-husbands to pay maintenance to their divorced wives. A husband who deserted his wife could no longer claim her earnings. A divorced or legally separated wife could recover the property rights she had before marriage, and regain a legal identity. However there were still inequalities in the law. A man could secure a divorce on the grounds of his wife's adultery. For women, a husband's adultery alone was insufficient grounds--she had to prove another charge such as desertion, extreme cruelty, or incest to secure a divorce.

Before the Act, divorce was governed by the ecclesiastical Court of Arches and the canon law of the Church of England. As such, it was not administered by the barristers who practised in the common law courts but by the "advocates" and "proctors" who practised civil law from Doctors' Commons, adding to the obscurity of the proceedings. Divorce was de facto restricted to the very wealthy as it demanded either a complex annulment process or a private bill, either at great cost. The latter entailed sometimes lengthy debates about a couple's intimate marital relationship in public in the House of Commons.

In the first year of operation of the Act, there were three hundred divorce petitions, as against three in the previous year and there were fears of chaos. However, the judge appointed to oversee the divorce court worked with colossal speed and energy, deciding over one thousand cases in six years, only one of which was reversed on appeal. He also showed great sensitivity in dealing with genuine grievances but at the same time upheld the sanctity of marriage.

Married Women Gain Rights

London, England, 1857: Caroline Sheridan's marriage to George Norton was disastrous: her husband beat her, tried to implicate her in an adulterous relationship with the Prime Minister and then attempted to blackmail him.

He denied Caroline her earnings and access to her children, even when one of them was dying. Having no legal redress, Caroline became a vigorous campaigner, first for maternal custody rights, and then for reform of divorce and property laws. Her efforts have led to the 1857 Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act.

Before now, wives in England had no independent legal existence and could not own property. Divorce was possible for men through a costly, lengthy, ecclesiastical and civil procedure, but was virtually impossible for women. The new act allows for a civil divorce procedure and gives courts the power to order ex-husbands to pay maintenance to their divorced wives. A husband who has deserted his wife can no longer claim her earnings. A divorced or legally separated wife recovers the property rights she had before marriage, and regains a legal identity. The grounds for divorce are now, however, more onerous for the woman, who has to prove not only that her husband is adulterous but also that he has committed incest, bigamy, bestiality, rape, sodomy, extreme cruelty, or desertion.

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

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