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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Divorce (Religious Marriages) Bill

Divorce (Religious Marriages) Bill

Standing Committee D

Wednesday 7 November 2001

[Mr. Derek Conway in the Chair]

Divorce (Religious Marriages) Bill

Clause 1

Power to refuse decree absolute if steps not taken to dissolve religious marriage

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

10.30 am

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway, and hope that your duties will not prove too onerous this morning.

The purpose of the clause is to remedy a disadvantage suffered by Jewish men and women who are prevented from remarrying because of the refusal of their partners to grant or accept a religious divorce, known in Hebrew as a get. The Jewish laws on marriage and divorce are biblical and not easily changed. In Jewish law, marriage and divorce are consensual processes, and an individual cannot be married or divorced against his or her will. That creates a problem in cases in which one party seeks to end the marriage and the other refuses to grant or receive a divorce.

For a civil divorce to be effective in Jewish law, a get—a consensual divorce in which mutual co-operation between the parties is needed—must be obtained. The husband has to go before a Beth Din court—a court in Jewish law—for a get and deliver it to his wife, and she is required to accept it. If he does not do so, the wife cannot remarry in Jewish law, although the husband may still be able to do so.

Jewish women who want to conduct their family relationships within the framework of their religious beliefs have virtually no power to compel a reluctant husband to grant them a get. Without a get, a divorcee who has a child by a subsequent partner is defined as an adulteress under Jewish law and the children are illegitimate for future generations. If a wife refuses to accept a husband's get, he does not suffer from the same disadvantages, so he can hold his wife to ransom, demanding money, property or other rights such as custody or reduced child maintenance in return for the get.

The Bill would enable a court to require the dissolution of a religious marriage before granting a civil divorce. The power is discretionary, but would provide a lever whereby pressure could be brought on the husband to agree to a get. New section 10A(1) refers to other prescribed religious usages, to be prescribed by the Lord Chancellor. It may have implications for Muslim marriages, but there has been no pressure from that community so far for similar provisions; the Bill is aimed primarily at the problems of Jewish divorce.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): On a point of clarification, the hon. Gentleman said that the proposal was aimed primarily at the problems of Jewish divorce. I understand that it is specifically aimed at that problem. Is that correct?

Mr. Dismore: It is correct that the Bill is specifically aimed at the problems of Jewish divorce, but should an unforeseen problem arise with another religion, a provision is made for the Lord Chancellor to proceed by order, which would be subject to the negative resolution procedure in both Houses.

The court would intervene only on the application of either the husband or the wife. It is a discretion that is available to the court; there is no compulsion on the judge, who would intervene only if that was just and reasonable. If one party was behaving unreasonably, the judge could intervene; if both parties were behaving reasonably, there would be no cause for him to do so. An order made by the judge could be revoked at any time.

The parties would have to produce a declaration, which must be in a specified form. The specification would be in the rules of court and could be changed relatively easily, if the paperwork proved to be more complicated than anticipated.

That is all that I have to say on the clause. I shall do my best to answer hon. Members' questions.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway. I have not served under your chairmanship before, but I have served under the benign chairmanship of other members of the Committee, particularly the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).

My first reaction on reading the Bill was that members of the Jewish faith should be able to resolve the problem. Fortunately, however, I had the opportunity to discuss the Bill with my illustrious and noble Friend Lord Lester, who led the Bill through the House of Lords.

Mr. Dismore: In fact, Lord Lester piloted another Bill. This third attempt at such legislation is phrased slightly differently from previous attempts, but will have the same effect.

Mr. Burnett: I am extremely grateful for that correction, because I was not certain what role Lord Lester had in the legislation. In any case, he has had a prominent role. He explained to me that, since 74 AD and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, it has been impossible for a Sanhedrin to meet, and therefore impossible for orthodox Jewish people to change their laws.

I am sympathetic to the Bill, as is my party, especially because of the occasional and sometimes more than occasional victimisation of women. It ill behoves me as a Catholic to pronounce on these matters, but I can see the benign effects that the Bill could have.

As the Sanhedrin has not met since 74 AD, I imagine that quite a lot of Jewish teaching is a little archaic, and this issue is one example. Our summer recesses are becoming longer, and if we are not careful, we shall create a similar problem, because we cannot change the law when we are not here.

I should like the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) to elaborate on one or two points. Will he give us greater detail about the reaction of members of the Jewish faith to the provision? It is important that we hear more about that, because we do not want to trespass on the sensitivities of an important section of our community.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Is it not true that, on religious observance, there is a clear line to be drawn between a Parliament's interests in justice and the fair distribution of support, and the views of a particular religion, and that we have encountered such a distinction before?

Mr. Burnett: I am extremely grateful for that question. The hon. Lady may recall my saying that, until I heard the history of the matter, I thought that it would be best dealt with by members of the Jewish faith.

The same situation prevails for Catholics as for Jewish people: a Catholic marriage is also a civil marriage. Catholics do not recognise divorce, as the hon. Member for Hendon probably knows, so a civil divorce is not a Catholic divorce. With the Bill, we are, albeit indirectly and with discretion, impinging on the solemn beliefs of a group of people. I should therefore like to know what consultation there has been with members of the Jewish faith, and the results. It would be wise to have that on the record.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that, in British society today, there should not be common standards and equal rights for all, and that because people follow a variation of a particular religion, they can invoke a religious exclusion clause so that the normal civil liberties and laws do not apply to them?

Mr. Burnett: I am not so grateful for that intervention, because I said that I was deeply sympathetic to the Bill. However, it is important that, so far as possible, we carry members of the Jewish faith with us. I do not want to trespass unnecessarily on their solemn beliefs. I repeat that I am sympathetic to the Bill and would be happy to see it extended, if need be, along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell). I hope that the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) will understand that it not wise to stoke up problems in sensitive debates where problems do not exist—

Mike Gapes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burnett: No, I will not give way a second time.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the orthodox Jewish community and its representative institutions strongly support the Bill, and that they have been disappointed at the failure of similar Bills in the past?

Mr. Burnett: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. I am sure that she has a significant and compelling fund of knowledge to back up her assertion. I was anxious to hear that and no doubt the hon. Member for Hendon can elaborate.

Will the hon. Member for Hendon tell us whether there is a problem with the European convention on human rights? Could the Bill be seen as discriminating against holders of the Jewish or other faiths? How will it apply to the Muslim faith? I understand that the Bill would allow Muslims to overcome some of their difficulties with matrimonial issues.

Finally, judicial discretion is wide—and rightly so. What has been done to settle the guidelines for judges to deal with these matters? Who will scrutinise those guidelines, and what consultation will there be about them?

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman examine the central feature of the Bill? It attempts to address a fundamental inequity in the relationship between husband and wife in the Jewish faith, in that the husband can avail himself of certain advantages, to the disadvantage of the wife. Far from contradicting human rights legislation, the Bill introduces into civil law a provision whereby the courts can use discretion to ensure that equity applies.

Mr. Burnett: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I fully understand that, but some people could still make mischief through the European convention on human rights. That was my penultimate point. I am anxious that the hon. Member for Hendon take the opportunity to explain the repercussions of the convention on the Bill. As I said, I hope that he will also say more about the guidelines for judges.

I repeat that we welcome proper and sensible debate of the Bill, and that we want any potential problems arising to be worked out through its parliamentary stages.


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