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Matrimonial Causes

Volume 235: debated on Wednesday 26 February 1930

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I beg to move,

"That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to matrimonial causes."
In form, the Bill involves two Amendments of the existing law. In the first-place, it adds to the grounds on which petitions for matrimonial relief are founded the ground that the respondent is incurably insane, and has been continuously a certified lunatic for a period of not less than five years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition. In the second place, the Bill withholds relief from a petitioner whose wilful neglect or misconduct has contributed to the insanity. This recommendation was concurred in by the majority commissioners in the 1912 inquiry, and I am glad to foe able to say that the Bill I am asking leave to introduce is supported from all quarters of this House. It relates to a grievance which is very sorely felt. The Royal Commission in 1912 pointed out that the question whether or not insanity should be accepted as a ground for divorce had not been considered by any Commission in this country, although, they added:
"the hardships resulting are well known and have been frequently discussed."
They stated:
"The evidence given before us and the communications received by us prove these hardships and the disastrous moral effects inseparable from the present state of the law."
They added further:
"Indeed, incurable insanity is more effective in destroying the marriage relationship than any of the other causes which we have recommended as grounds for divorce."
An eminent specialist who gave evidence before that Commission used an expres- sion which I will recall to the House. Dr. Robert Jones said:
"The marriage contract is ended by death, and should similarly and for the same reason be ended by confirmed insanity, which is social and domestic extinction."
That sets up the ground on which I ask the House to grant leave to introduce this Bill. The extent of this grievance is widespread. Certain figures were placed before the Royal Commission in 1912, into which I need not go, but quite recently in this House certain figures were given. On 19th February, it was stated on behalf of the Ministry of Health that the statistics of annual admissions in mental institutions show the total number of married persons certified in the years 1921 to 1928, inclusive, to be 37,872 men and 43,276 women. Statistics are not available as to the number of those still remaining under care, or the number that have been in mental hospitals for more than five years; so that while it does not directly affect the restriction imposed by this Bill, it does indicate the extent of the trouble. On 16th December last certain figures were given of which I may remind the House. It was stated on behalf of the Ministry of Health that statistics collected by a special inquiry in 1921 showed that on 1st January in that year there were 43,871 males and 55,883 female patients under care in institutions for the insane in England and Wales. Of these, 14,058 men and 19,292 women were described as married, and of these, again, 7,121 men and 10,021 women had been certified for more than five years.

During the last few days, since notice of my intention to ask leave to introduce this Bill became known, I have received showers of letters from all over the country giving pitiful cases of spouses who have been in asylums for many years, and testifying to the widespread need of relief. There is a difficulty which might induce hon. Members to hesitate to accept this Bill, except under proper safeguards. That is the difficulty of ascertaining the condition of incurable insanity. I may advise the House by referring again to the recommendations of the Royal Commission of 1912. These words are included in the Report of the Commission:
"It was suggested that it may be difficult to determine the fact that a patient is absolutely incurable, and that conflicting medical evidence might leave the question uncertain. The evidence clearly shows that, if a time limit be given, the difficulty becomes almost negligible, and there appears to be no reason to suppose that, if the ground is confined to lunacy pronounced incurable after five years continuous confinement, any real difficulty would arise."
I press that view upon the House, and may I add that, under the Bill, the condition of insanity is not only to be a present condition, but it is to be a condition which has been certified over a continuous period of five years immediately preceding the application for a petition. The relief offered under the Bill is optional, and my submission is that, where there is a desire for this relief, it is in accordance with public justice and national necessities that that relief should be available under suitable safeguards.

I regret that I feel compelled to ask the House not to grant leave to my hon. and learned Friend to introduce this Bill. I desire to thank him for the modest and careful way in which he has put forward his case, but the sympathetic and gentle manner of his introduction covers what may be a very large and vital tragedy. Whatever other merits this amendment of the law may have, it is plain that if it were granted and presently became law, divorce would become possible upon the application of one party, without any possibility of defence on the part of the other, for obviously, if a person is certified as incurably insane, he is unable to take any part in the proceedings. With great respect to the clear opening that we had from my hon. and learned Friend, I cannot feel satisfied, with the extract that was given, that there is an ample definition of incurable insanity. With the present rapid state of advancement in medical and mental science, it is becoming increasingly difficult, and doctors will be increasingly unwilling, to say at any time, much less after five years, that a patient has reached a period where there is absolutely no hope.

In many border-line cases of insanity, men and women might have the haunting fear during the first months, which are the important months for observation, that they may presently be certified as insane, and that their whole home life will be gone, together with the relationship of the family, which is one of the strongest magnets to draw such patients back to normality and make them undergo treatment. All that will be gone, and people on the border-line will become much more serious cases, I am speaking entirely for myself, but, I hope, on behalf of many other people in this House. I think that we are tackling this problem at the wrong end. It is possible under the existing law for couples of all kinds to go into the marriage relationship and produce mentally unfit children and, it would have been much wiser if a real attempt were made to prevent the marriage of unfit persons, and to prevent the birth of unfit children rather than tinker with the problem at this end. If we are continuously going to make divorce easier, if we are going for ever to increase the ways and means by which the marriage bond can be broken and the relationship can be ended, we shall land ourselves in a most serious position. There are grave objections to an extension of the grounds of divorce. There are ample grounds already, and if five years' detention in a mental hospital or a doubtful certificate of permanent insanity, is to be a ground for divorce, there are other things perhaps harder than that that might perhaps be brought in.

Division No. 186.]


[4.27 p.m.

Adamson, W. M. (Staff., Cannock)Church, Major A. G.Hamilton, Mary Agnes (Blackburn)
Addison, Rt. Hon. Dr. ChristopherClarke, J. S.Harbison, T. J.
Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (Hillsbro')Cocks, Frederick SeymourHarbord, A.
Allen, W. E. D. (Belfast, W.)Colman, N. C. D.Harris, Percy A.
Amman, Charles GeorgeCompton, JosephHartshorn, Rt. Hon. Vernon
Angell, NormanCove, William G.Hastings, Dr. Somerville
Arnott, JohnCulverwell, C. T. (Bristol, West)Haycock, A. W.
Atholl, Duchess ofDaggar, GeorgeHayday, Arthur
Ayles, WalterDallas, GeorgeHenderson, Right Hon. A. (Burnley)
Baillie-Hamilton, Hon. Charles W.Dalton, HughHirst, G. H. (York W. R. Wentworth)
Baker, John (Wolverhampton, Bilston)Davison, Sir W. H. (Kensington, S.)Hoffman, P. C.
Baldwin, Oliver (Dudley)Day, HarryHollins, A.
Balfour, Captain H. H. (I. of Thanet)Dudgeon, Major C. R.Hope, Sir Harry (Forfar)
Batey, JosephDuncan, CharlesHorrabin, J. F.
Bellamy, AlbertEde, James ChuterHudson, James H. (Huddersfield)
Bennett, William (Battersea, South)Edwards, E. (Morpeth)Hurst, Sir Gerald B.
Benson, G.Elmley, ViscountIsaacs, George
Bentham, Dr. EthelEngland, Colonel A.Jenkins, W. (Glamorgan, Neath)
Bevan, Aneurin (Ebbw Vale)Evans, Capt. Ernest (Welsh Univer.)John, William (Rhondda, West)
Boothby, R. J. G.Everard, W. LindsayJones, F. Llewellyn. (Flint)
Bourne, Captain Robert CroftFermoy, LordJones, J. J. (West Ham, Silvertown)
Bowerman, Rt. Hon. Charles W.Fison, F. G. ClaveringJones, Rt. Hon. Leif (Camborne)
Braithwaite, Major A. N.Foot, IsaacJones, Morgan (Caerphilly)
Brockway, A. FennerFergan, Dr. RobertJones, T. I. Mardy (Pontypridd)
Bromfield, WilliamFreeman, PeterJowett, Rt. Hon. F. W.
Bromley, J.George, Major G. Lloyd (Pembroke)Knox, Sir Alfred
Brown, C. W. E. (Notts, Mansfield)Gibson, C. G. (Pudsey & Otley)Lamb, Sir J. Q.
Brown, Ernest (Leith)Gill, T. H.Lansbury, Rt. Hon. George
Burgin, Dr. E. L.Glassey, A. E.Lathan, G.
Butler, R. A.Gossling, A. G.Law, Albert (Bolton)
Buxton, C. R. (Yorks. W. R. Elland)Grace, JohnLawrence, Susan
Cameron, A. G.Graham, D. M. (Lanark, Hamilton)Lawther, W. (Barnard Castle)
Carter, W. (St. Pancras, S. W.)Griffith, F. Kingsley (Middlesbro' W.)Leach, W.
Cautley, Sir Henry S.Groves, Thomas E.Lee, Jennie (Lanark, Northern)
Cayzer, Maj. Sir Herbt. R. (Prtsmth, S.)Hall, F. (York, W. R., Normanton)Lees, J.
Chater, DanielHall, Capt. W. P. (Portsmouth, C.)Leighton, Major B. E. P.

I suggest that we are fast approaching the stage when a contract of marriage will be merely a contract between two people on almost identical grounds with the present arrangement that many people have for purchasing their furniture. I do not see why there should not be a Bill introduced to make a decrease in income a reason for divorce. I understand that the principle of married life is that two people have each other on trust for better or for worse, but little by little every bit of the worse is being ruled out. It is like saying that the first time you fail to meet your instalments, you must be thrown on the scrapheap. I know that my hon. Friend does not mean that, but that in fact will be the result of this Amendment. One of the most difficult cases is that of the insanity of women at a certain age, and it seems a terrible thing if it is going to be possible at that time, after the man has had a full life, for the woman to be haunted with the fear of being permanently insane while the man will be free to marry again.

Question put,

"That leave he given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to matrimonial causes."

The House divided: Ayes, 210; Noes, 102.

Lewis, Oswald (Colchester)Paling, WilfridStamford, Thomas W.
Lewis, T. (Southampton)Palmer, E. T.Stewart, J. (St. Rollox)
Longbottom, A. W.Perry, S. F.Strachey, E. J. St. Loe
McElwee, A.Peters, Dr. Sidney JohnStrauss, G. R.
McEntee, V. L.Pethick-Lawrence, F. W.Taylor, R. A. (Lincoln)
Maclean, Sir Donald (Cornwall, N.)Pole, Major D. G.Thomas, Major L. B. (King's Norton)
Maltland, A, (Kent, Faversham)Price, M. P.Thorne, W. (West Ham. Plaistow)
Malone, C. L'Estrange (N'thampton)Purbrick, R.Thurtle, Ernest
March, S.Pybus, Percy JohnVaughan, D. J.
Marcus, M.Quibell, D. J. K.Viant, S. P.
Marjoribanks, E. C.Ramsay, T. B. WiltonWalkden, A. G.
Markharn, S. F.Richardson, Sir P. W. (Sur'y, Ch'te'y)Walker, J.
Marshall, FredRiley, Ben (Dewsbury)Wallhead, Richard C.
Mathers, GeorgeRameril, H. G.Waterhouse, Captain Charles
Matters, L. W.Russell, Alexander West (Tynemouth)Watkins, F. C.
Maxton, JamesSalter, Dr. AlfredWellock, Wilfred
Messer, FredSamuel, A. M. (Surrey, Farnham)Welsh, James (Paisley)
Millar, J. D.Samuel, H. W. (Swansea, West)Welsh, James C. (Coatbridge)
Mills, J. E.Sanders, W. S.West, F. R.
Mitchell, Sir W. Lane (Streatham)Sawyer, G. F.Whiteley, Wilfrid (Birm., Ladywood)
Montague, FrederickShakespeare, Geoffrey H.Wilkinson, Ellen C.
Morley, RalphShiels, Dr. DrummondWilliams, David (Swansea, East)
Morris, Rhys HopkinsShillaker, J. F.Williams, Dr. J. H. (Llanelly)
Morrison, Herbert (Hackney, South)Short, Alfred (Wednesbury)Williams, T. (York, Don Valley)
Morrison, Robert C. (Tottenham, N.)Simon, E. D. (Manch'ter, Withington)Wilson, C. H. (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
Morrison-Bell, Sir Arthur CliveSinclair, Col. T. (Queen's U., Belfst)Wilson, J. (Oldham)
Moses, J. J. H.Sinkinson, GeorgeWindsor-Clive, Lieut.-Colonel George
Mosley, Sir Oswald (Smethwick)Sitch, Charles H.Winterton, Rt. Hon. Earl
Muff, G.Smith, Frank (Nuneaton)Wise, E. F.
Nathan, Major H. L.Smith, H. B. Lees (Keighley)Womersley, W. J.
Naylor, T. E.Smith, Rennie (Penistone)Wood, Major McKenzie (Banff)
Noel Baker, P. J.Smith, W. R. (Norwich)Young, R. S. (Islington, North)
Oliver, P. M. (Man., Blackley)Snell, Harry
Owen, Major G. (Carnarvon)Snowden, Thomas (Accrington)


Palin, John HenrySorensen, R.Mr. Holford Knight and Commander Bellairs.


Adamson, Rt. Hon. W. (Fife, West)Hayes, John HenryRaynes, W. R.
Aitchison, Rt. Hon. Craigie M.Henderson, Arthur, Junr. (Cardiff, S.)Reynolds, Col. Sir James
Beamish, Rear-Admiral T. P. H.Henderson, Thomas (Glasgow)Richards, R.
Beaumont, M. W.Hennessy, Major Sir G. R. J.Richardson, R. (Houghton-le-Spring)
Berry, Sir GeorgeHudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hackney, N.)Rosbotham, D. S. T.
Bowater, Col. Sir T. VansittartJones, Henry Haydn (Merioneth)Rowson, Guy
Bowen, J. W.Kedward, R. M. (Kent, Ashford)Runciman, Rt. Hon Walter
Bowyer, Captain Sir George E. W.Kennedy, ThomasSandeman, Sir N. Stewart
Boyce, H. L.Kenworthy, Lt.-Com. Hon. Joseph M.Savery, S. S.
Brothers, M.Kindersley, Major G. M.Sexton, James
Brown, James (Ayr and Bute)Lambert, Rt. Hon. George (S. Molton)Shepherd, Arthur Lewis
Buckingham, Sir H.Lane Fox, Col. Rt. Hon. George R.Shield, George William
Buxton, Rt. Hon. Noel (Norfolk, N.)Law, Sir Alfred (Derby, High Peak)Simmons, C. J.
Cape, ThomasLaw, A. (Rosendale)Simms, Major-General J.
Charleton, H. C.Lee, Frank (Derby, N. E.)Smith, Alfred (Sunderland)
Cluse, W. S.Llewellin, Major J. J.Smithers, Waldron
Croft, Brigadier-General Sir H.Logan, David GilbertStewart, W. J. (Belfast, South)
Crookshank, Capt. H. C.Longden, F.Sueter, Rear-Admiral M. F.
Dalrymple-White, Lt.-Col. Sir GodfreyLowth, ThomasSutton, J. E.
Davies, E. C. (Montgomery)Lymington, ViscountTaylor, W. B. (Norfolk, S. W.)
Dawson, Sir PhilipMacdonald, Gordon (Ince)Tinker, John Joseph
Edmunds, J. E.MacNeill-Weir, L.Todd, Capt. A. J.
Edwards, C. (Monmouth, Bedwellty)McShane, John JamesTownend, A. E.
Forestier-Walker, Sir L.Makins, Brigadier-General E.Turner, B.
Fremantle, Lieut.-Colonel Francis E.Mansfield, W.Ward, Lieut.-Col. Sir A. Lambert
Gardner, B. W. (West Ham, Upton)Milner, J.Wells, Sydney R.
Gibbins, JosephNewman, Sir R. H. S. D. L. (Exeter)Westwood, Joseph
Gould, F.Nicholson, Col. Rt. Hn. W. G. (Ptrsf'ld)Whiteley, William (Blaydon)
Grenfell, D. R. (Glamorgan)Oldfield, J. R.Williams, Charles (Devon, Torquay)
Gretton, Colonel Rt. Hon. JohnOman, Sir Charles William C.Wilson, R. J. (Jarrow)
Griffiths, T. (Monmouth, Pontypool)Parkinson, John Allen (Wigan)Withers, Sir John James
Grundy, Thomas W.Peto, Sir Basil E. (Devon, Barnstaple)Young, Rt. Hon. Sir Hilton
Gunsten, Captain D. W.Potts, John S.
Hall, G. H Merthyr Tydvil)Pownall, Sir Assheton


Hanbury, C.Preston, Sir Walter RuebenMr. Lang and Dr. Vernon Davies.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Holford Knight, Mr. Freeman, Dr. Little, Viscount Elmley, Dr. Bentham, Mr. Pybus, Mr. Sorensen, Commander Bellairs, Mr. Duncan Millar, and Sir Rennell Rodd.