1857 - Matrimonial Causes Act 1857

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The act represents the first piece of legislation to introduce divorce in England by decree of the civil courts. The aim of the legislation was to protect the “reverence accorded to the nuptial tie” and therefore required that the causes of divorce be limited to “a few extreme and specific provocations” (Cretney, 2005). The act established that the dissolution of marriage should be allowed for adultery only. Section 27 of the act enabled a husband to divorce his wife only if he could prove that she had committed adultery. Simple (even if repeated) adultery would not be sufficient for a wife to divorce her husband: In order for a woman to be granted a divorce, her petitioner had to prove not only that her husband had committed adultery, but also that the adultery was incestuous, or that he was guilty of bigamy or cruelty (“rape, sodomy and bestiality”), or that he had deserted the wife for two years or more (Cretney, 2005; Woodhouse, 1959). The consequent Matrimonial Causes Act 1923 would introduce a higher degree of gender equality, by making adultery by either husband or wife the only ground for divorce (Probert, 1999).