Till death do us part: a marriage being wretchedly unhappy is no ground for ending it, say courts


Divorce. CC0 - Public Domain


Last week Tina Owens lost her appeal after the family courts refused her a divorce – saying her reasons for wanting it weren’t good enough. Has the time come for the law to be reformed?

This piece was written in the style of the Guardian’s Pass Notes as part of my portfolio for my MA Journalism course at Goldsmiths.

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Name: No-fault divorce.

Age: As yet, unborn.

Appearance: Very attractive according to former high court judge, Sir Paul Coleridge QC.

Don’t you mean, ‘It’s your fault’ divorce? No, that’s the point. Last week a woman, Tina Owens, was back in the family court to appeal its refusal to grant her a divorce from her unhappy marriage – but the judge was having none of it.

It’s not automatic? Not even close. Sir James Munby, the most senior family court judge in England and Wales, said at the hearing: “It is not a ground for divorce if you find yourself in a wretchedly unhappy marriage”.

Sounds rather 19th century to me. Quite. Specialist divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag called it “beyond archaic”. Currently the only quick way to get divorced is claiming there has been adultery or “unreasonable behaviour” from your spouse.

No amicable separations here, then? A survey in 2015 found that 27% of faults alleged in divorce petitions were made up to satisfy the courts. Even if a couple have separated, this can only be cited as a reason for divorce after two years apart – and only then if both parties consent. Mr Owens did not.

If love can’t keep her with you, there’s always the law. She filed 27 allegations of “unreasonable behaviour” including an airport argument – but he told the court they still had “a good few years” left together. For his part, the judge said these sort of rows were a normal part of married life!

Time for reform, eh? Coleridge described divorce law as “antediluvian” – but politicians seem wedded to it. A 2015 attempt to introduce a no-fault divorce bill didn’t make it past its first reading. Whereas Sweden reformed its law to allow divorce through mutual agreement in 1915 – over a century ago.

Time for all unhappy couples to flock to liberal Scandinavia? Or to convert to Islam. A Muslim spouse married under Islamic law merely has to say “I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you” and the marriage is over.

Ouch. Can be, yes. One Saudi divorced his wife immediately when he saw her face for the first time on their wedding day.

Perhaps we can find a middle way? Maybe. Or we could just ignore the issue. I mean, it worked for Lords reform.

Do say: “But we only did it for the tax breaks!”

Don’t say: “I do.”

Profiting from fear

I am safe after yesterday’s sad events – which are a tragedy for those who have lost loved ones, or who may have life changing injuries.

It’s understandable that people feel the need to check on people close to them who may have been in the area – and to provide that ‘just in case’ reassurance. Once the thought comes to mind, it’s hard to do anything else.

Four or five people are killed in the UK – on any average day – in road accidents. In terms of being killed purely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, what’s happened in Westminster is hardly a blip. There are other areas we should be focusing on to reduce the number of lives tragically cut short. Where I’m currently living, 7.5% of deaths are due to air pollution. The lives lost due to mental illness, or austerity – whether indirectly or directly – are probably higher; but it’d be hard to estimate. And the equivalent of at least one Londoner a day is killed by climate change – already – although its victims are disproportionately in poorer nations.

It is only too human to get things out of proportion: one death is a tragedy, a thousand are a statistic; and the values of the news cycle exacerbate that.

What is not forgivable is Facebook – which profits from advertising on extremist content of all sorts – deliberately fueling that with its ‘mark your self safe’ tool (in the case at least, basically a gimmick).

It is using that to cement its own indispensability as a money-making communication platform: effectively forcing people to mark themselves safe. Profiting from the worst kind of heart wrenching event.

Value – or Finance?


Politicians cynically bemoaning a loss of social values has become all too common, from Gordon Brown’s appeal to nationalist sentiments in talking of a return to ‘British values’, to David Cameron’s shallow suggestion that the riots were a result of the loss of family values. And yet a proper discussion of our values is sorely needed, because all too often one value has been a dominant organising feature of our society: financial value. Whether in the guise of profit, efficiency, cost-cutting or value-for money, finances have come to be a key factor driving the way most organisations and social actors work today.


This doesn’t apply just to profiteering corporations, where directors are legally obliged to put profit above all else. It also applies to NGOs whose activity often becomes dominated by the need to chase funding: not only does this take away from their other activities, but it also means their priorities are determined by the agendas of the state or of those with wealth. And money is dominant in the minds of the public too: whether as consumers whose purchases are driven by whatever is cheapest, or as employees enslaved on the nine to five in order to pay rent, pensions, mortgages, and other necessities. Society wide the skewing of priorities by financial considerations is seen in our failure so far to take serious action against climate change, and also in recent austerity policies: not just corporate but also state behaviour is driven by cost-cutting, and not by any evidence of what is best for individuals, businesses, societies or the economy.


This is worth pondering, because money creation is ostensibly controlled by the state, although in practice much is created by banks as credit (see positivemoney.org.uk for an explanation). Money is a social construct par excellence – it has no intrinsic value or use, and as bank runs and currency crises show, its ‘value’ only lasts so long as confidence in this ‘value’ remains. Money is not serving the interests of society, and even the state is bound by the logic of its own creation – rather than remaining a means, money has become an end.


But money is not a universal feature of human civilisation, it is a historically specific one – before the rise of industrial capitalism, distribution through gifts and mutual obligations were far more common. As a society we must begin the discussion of where financial mechanisms are appropriate, and of what the alternatives are – and organisations must ensure that finances, and institutional preservation, do not become their raison d’etre.


There are two recent examples in our small corner of Edinburgh of this institutional myopia – despite some attempts at change. The first was when the trustee board of EUSA, an organisation whose sole reason for existence is student democracy, overturned the decision of a quorate referendum to boycott brewer SABMiller on financial grounds.


The second case is the ongoing scandal of the university’s investment portfolio, which reads like a roll call of dirty industries. Despite the university’s status as a non-profit public research and educational institution educational and support for fair trade and sustainability on campus, there is little evidence that the university’s values are being applied in the management of its £230 million. Campaigns against arms and tobacco have had some success in the, but investments remain in Ultra Electronics Holdings, which manufactures military drones – currently being used by the US in in contravention of international law, and causing civilian deaths and serious psychological trauma to civilian populations.


Meanwhile a significant proportion of the investment portfolio is in fossil fuels, despite the proven need for at least 80% of oil reserves to be left in the ground for catastrophic climate change to be avoided. In its failure to even balance environmental and financial considerations, the investment committee has so far failed to implement the university’s own policies on sustainability – and has ignored the financial risk associated it with fossil fuel investment, the many other industries which are creating socially useful investment, and the possibility of investing positively in student services and the university’s own estate, which could reap both social and financial rewards. Change is needed, and it can start right here on our doorstep.

This is the longer version of an article that was originally published in abridged form in the Student Newspaper.

For more on the Responsible Investment campaign at the University of Edinburgh, check out the blog at investethically.wordpress.com.



Public Health not Private Wealth: In Defence of the National Health Service

Nick Dowson


The British Health Secretary Andrew Lansley was greeted on his arrival in Edinburgh on Friday with a crowd of angry protesters outside the Surgeon’s Hall where he was due to speak in support of his forthcoming Health and Social Care Bill.


Strange perhaps for an issue which will only affect the NHS in England, both Lansley’s presence in Edinburgh and the vehemence of the opposition. But this is an issue which strikes to the heart of the fight over what sort of society we wish to live in; and as we’ve seen with tuition fees, decisions made for England by Westminster often have knock-on effects North of the border.


Lansley’s plans mean nothing less than the end of the NHS as we know it, and despite a coalition agreement promise for ‘no more top-down reforms’, and the bill not being in any election manifesto, this government is forcing it through despite widespread opposition, including calls from almost all professional health organizations for its complete withdrawal. The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives have within the last weeks formed a united front against the danger this reorganization poses.


Why the bill is so harmful I will explain below, but one key fact in itself should be enough for widespread suspicion; the government is refusing to publish, despite an order from the information commissioner, the ‘risk register’, a report commissioned by the civil service into the dangers of the bill. It’s easy to suspect that the department of health’s failure to publish this risk register is because it fears even more widespread opposition to the bill if the bills dangers were made public; at the very least, it is fundamentally undemocratic to hide this information from MPs and the public at a time when important decisions are being taken on the future of our health service. If you find this as fishy as I do, before you read any further please go to the Unison website, where you can email your MP and demand that the risk register to be published immediately.


So what will the bill do? For starters, it changes the Secretary of State’s duty to ‘provide’ a universal health service to a duty to ‘promote’ one. Think of the difference between providing free dinners for all school pupils and ‘promoting’ free dinners for school pupils. Why has Lansley seen it necessary to make this change, except so that he can cease to provide the universal healthcare, free at the point of need, which has been so fundamental to the NHS since its creation by Aneurin Bevan in 1946? Fortunately this element of the bill has already come under intense scrutiny and may be changed.


What else? Key to the changes is that GPs are being put in charge of ‘commissioning’ health care and services, a process which has already being begun even without legislative approval. Essentially this means the NHS’s budget will be turned over to doctors with little interest, knowledge or time to manage it; their focus is, and should be, the welfare of their patients, and putting them in charge of financial considerations would create a fundamental conflict of interest. Furthermore, forcing this extra responsibility on GPs would not lead to more ‘choice’ or a patient-centred NHS, but would leave many of them with little option but to pay private companies to take this extra chore off their hands.


This pressure towards privatization will be bolstered by giving Monitor, a regulator, powers to enforce competition within the NHS. It will also make EU competition law enforceable within the NHS. In the Netherlands, where a similar change was made, the Dutch GP association has been fined 7.7m Euros for trying to ensure all areas of the country were adequately provided with GP services. Is the Westminster government trying to create a postcode lottery?


A further government amendment to the bill will take this privatization even further; NHS hospitals will be allowed to earn up to 49% of their income from private patients. Exactly what it says on the tin; this creates priority for those who can afford to go private, and means less beds, less urgency in treatment, for the rest of us.


But don’t take my word for it; the research and evidence is all out there for the finding. This bill could mean the end of a service which has received high levels of public support, and has provided high standards of universal healthcare for lower levels of spending than in most other European countries (only 8.4% of GDP), and for vastly less than the cost of healthcare in America (16%); so why move towards their more expensive privatized healthcare system, when it is so much less effective?


Leaving aside those in this government who stand to profit handsomely from expanded private healthcare (Lansley’s wife runs a lobbying agency; see lowassociates.co.uk for a weird trip into their murky world. And as shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley received 21,000 pounds from John Nash, chairman of private health firm Care UK. Other members of cabinet also have distinctly dodgy links.), the NHS is a central ideological target for the Conservatives. A public and universal healthcare system that treats all equally is fundamental to a society where all can fulfill their individual potential; it’s necessary to a healthy society of which Cameron’s ‘big society’ is but a perversion. An expansion of NHS principles further into public health, preventative medicine and mental health provision would mean a society where all were better off.


Ideologies like that of the millionaire Westminster government which promote private greed and minority interests at the expense of society as a whole can only be opposed to such an idealistic, yet practical, vision, as that embodied in the NHS that we have today but are at risk of losing.


The NHS is not perfect, but it does not ‘need fixing’. After increased spending on it under Labour, public satisfaction with it reached a high point.  Parliament’s Select Committee for health has come out against the bill; even elements within the Conservative party, and the popular blog Conservative Home are now worried about its effects. But fortunately the success of this bill is looking ever more fragile by the day; Ladbrokes has 2/1 odds on Lansley being the next minister to leave the cabinet. Now is the time for action; write to your MP, sign petitions, protest and do whatever – whatever – it takes to stop this bill of destruction. For those who let it pass will have blood on their hands.


This is an extended version of a shorter article which originally appeared in The Student