Unreasonableness defined?

Posted by Christine Plews on
It was sad to recently note that Rowan Atkinson was getting divorced after being married for 24 years with a petition being issued against him on the basis of his Unreasonable Behaviour. However, this reminded me of another article that I had seen when previously looking for inspiration for my next blog. This involved another divorce, again being progressed on the basis of the husband's Unreasonable Behaviour: -

In April 2009, a German woman divorced her husband because she was “fed up” with him cleaning everything all the time. The wife got through 15 years of marriage putting up with the man’s penchant for doing household chores, tidying up and rearranging the furniture, but she ran out of patience when he knocked down and rebuilt a wall at their home when it got dirty.”

On reading this, my initial reaction is that I know a number of people (my wife being one of them) who would be pleased that their spouse took such an active role when it came to the household chores and this behaviour would certainly not result in a divorce, although the opposite behaviour could, and has, appeared in a number of divorce petitions.

However, I began to ask myself the question of what is actually considered unreasonable in the sense of obtaining a divorce? Under English law, in order to obtain a divorce it is not possible to just state there were irreconcilable differences between the parties. Instead the petitioning party must show that the marriage has irretrievably broken down by satisfying the Court on one of the following five grounds: -

  • Adultery
  • Unreasonable Behaviour
  • 2 years separation by consent
  • 2 years desertion
  • 5 years separation

With the four other grounds, the criteria required to satisfy the same is evident from their description but with the ground of Unreasonable Behaviour, this is not the case. In respect of Unreasonable Behaviour, the law states that the Court will find the marriage has irretrievably broken down if it is shown: -

…that the respondent has behaved in such a way that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent.”

Therefore, under the strict interpretation of this definition, in order to satisfy the Court that the other party has been unreasonable, you would seemingly need the Judge considering the petition to personally agree that the behaviour you have stated was unreasonable. Clearly, there will be certain types of behaviour, such as physical and emotional violence, that will immediately be seen as unreasonable but what happens when there is no real reason why the marriage has broken down other than the parties simply don’t get on and have grown apart? In these circumstances, the reasons put forward, although significant to the petitioning party, may not seem unreasonable to the Judge considering the case. Thankfully, the Courts tend to adopt a pragmatic approach to this which is especially useful when it comes to progressing the divorce given that it allows both parties to discuss and agree the type of behaviour that will be stated in the petition.

By doing this, you can ensure that the contents of the petition will be sufficient to satisfy the Judge but, more importantly, will not cause any offence to your spouse that could cause difficulties later on with it comes to resolving any subsequent issues, such as financial matters or arrangements concerning the children.

As such, the simple rule when considering what constitutes unreasonable behaviour is that, if you consider it unreasonable and can justify this, then this can be included in the petition. Although, as a word of warning, just remember this fact and the above case when your spouse asks you to help them with the housework in the future!

About the Author

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Christine leads the Family Law Practice Group and specialises in matters arising out of divorce and separation, including cohabitee disputes. She is an experienced mediator.

Christine Plews
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