Historic divorce papers give a view of early family law issues

10th March 2015 by

With the increase in popularity of amateur genealogy, prompted by programmes such as “Who Do You Think You Are” and “Heir Hunters”, finding one’s roots has become big business and many interested parties are turning to websites such as Ancestry.co.uk and findmypast.co.uk.

However, for many, the incidence of a divorce which happened several generations earlier may have meant that the lines of heritage became blurred.

Now, for the first time, details of divorce proceedings in the UK from the 19th and early 20th centuries have been published online so that we can see exactly who divorced who, and why, as far back as 1858.

Prior to this, divorce had been purely under the jurisdiction of the church, via ecclesiastical courts, and a full divorce required Parliamentary intervention, but when the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 came into force divorce became a civil matter. Previously, seeking a divorce had only been possible for the super-rich and powerful; however, the Act gave rights of audience to common law barristers to act for clients, therefore removing the monopoly held by civil law advocates to act in divorce cases.

The historic documents released to the public are part of the National Archives Collection and the details of almost 70,000 divorces shed light on some of the major marriage scandals of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Yet, divorce was still relatively rare at the time, largely due to the high cost of going to court. In the early part of the 20th century there were around 1,200 divorce applications per year – today that figure has risen to 120,000 per year or more.

Marital issues are still the same

The Matrimonial Court records show that it dealt with issues of separation, custody disputes, legitimacy claims and nullifications of marriage as well as divorce claims made on the grounds of adultery.

Initially, a man who could prove his wife had been having an affair was allowed to divorce her on this ground alone, whereas women had to provide supplementary evidence of mistreatment, such as desertion or battery. Despite this seemingly uneven playing field, around half of the earliest divorces were petitioned for by wives and many early divorces were granted to those whose husbands had failed to consummate the marriage.

For a time, couples whose relationships had irretrievably broken down would be required to prove adultery had taken place so that their marriage could be legally dissolved and, in many cases, irrefutable evidence would be fabricated. Women would be paid to attend a hotel room in which they would be photographed with the husband during a shock visit by a detective.

Miriam Silverman from Ancestry.co.uk said, “Such evidence was eventually seen for what it was and dismissed in court as collusive, but for many years this was a tool available for those desperate to divorce.”

Divorce in the 21st century

Thankfully, obtaining a divorce under current family law is not only for the super-rich and most family law solicitors will be able to help you achieve a straightforward divorce in a cost-effective manner which will always seek to protect your best interests, and those of any children, whether you are the petitioner or respondent, or making or defending a financial claim.

At Healys LLP our divorce solicitors in London and Brighton are here to help you legally negotiate a divorce, whatever your circumstances, and to help you achieve the best possible outcome.

If you would like to speak to a divorce solicitor today why not call our family law teams in London or Brighton. We look forward to helping you in your 21st century proceedings.