The Spectre of Modernity Stalks England's Divorce Courts

Friday 20th November 1936


The private member’s bill reforming England's antiquated and irrational divorce laws passed its second reading smoothly. It was approved by 78 votes to 12. The studied neutrality of the government’s law officers gave a clear signal that the measure was acceptable. No hostage was given to fortune should it fall foul of a backlash by strict moralists, but it lay with potential opponents to organize resistance.


The Bill’s chief sponsors, humourist A. P. Herbert and de la Bere, had to put their credentials as men long happily married – moreover “no Bohemian” in Herbert’s case – on display. Herbert adroitly set out the strong parts of his argument: the current rule that even church authorities felt that the rule that made adultery the sole ground for divorce was contrary to morality, desertion was recognised as grounds for divorce in Scotland already, lower courts with conciliation services should hear initial hearings and barring divorce entirely in the first five years of marriage would prevent you people rushing out of marriage. The Bill’s opponents were either against divorce entirely or saw great merits in the most pernicious aspects of the current, in particular the six month gap between decree nisi and decree absolute, which allowed the King’s Proctor time to investigate whether the divorce might be blocked on the grounds of adultery by the plaintiff. Under the Bill this whole charade would become obsolete, but rationality has never held much appeal to British legal conservatives. 

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