What Amounts to 'Marital Reconciliation'? Unique High Court Ruling

Some couples have second thoughts in the midst of divorce proceedings and get back together. However, in a unique decision, the High Court has ruled that the resumption of a toxic relationship does not amount to marital reconciliation.

The case concerned a wealthy couple who had been married for about two years when the wife petitioned for divorce. In doing so, she asserted that the husband's behaviour was such that she could not reasonably be expected to continue living with him and the marriage had thus irretrievably broken down.

She obtained a decree nisi and, following financial relief proceedings, orders were made in accordance with the terms of a pre-nuptial agreement that both she and the husband had signed after taking legal advice. Provision was made for her housing, maintenance and other needs. However, she thereafter took no steps to finally terminate the marriage by obtaining a decree absolute.

Some years after the decree nisi was granted, the wife applied to rescind it. She did so on the basis that she and the husband had reconciled soon after it was issued and their marriage had thus continued. She asserted that her original divorce petition should be dismissed and the financial orders set aside. She acknowledged that the marriage had now finally broken down and, if her applications were granted, she intended to lodge a fresh divorce petition.

Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that it had not previously encountered a case in which a spouse sought to impeach an earlier decree nisi made in his or her favour. The wife's applications were superficially curious and the facts of the case were very unlikely to be repeated in the future.

The Court observed that the wife's motive in making the applications was purely financial in that the pre-nuptial agreement provided for her to receive increasing levels of financial provision depending on the length of the marriage. If the marriage had lasted for eight years, as she contended, as opposed to two, the level of her provision would therefore be substantially increased.

In dismissing the applications, the Court acknowledged that a relationship of sorts had resumed after the grant of the decree nisi. It was, however, as unhealthy and toxic as it had been since the early days of the marriage. Whilst they may have still referred to themselves as husband and wife, there was no mutual comfort or assistance and they obtained no enjoyment from each other's society.

The Court found that it would be an abuse of language to describe the resumption of such a dismal relationship as a marital reconciliation. The original decree nisi was not granted in error in that there had indeed been an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. The husband was granted a decree absolute, with the result that the financial orders would now, at last, take full effect.