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This Week 444: Divorce (1964)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

A private detective talks about the need for disguise when doing his job - which is to collect evidence on "matrimonial offences" to help people get divorced. Detectives generally work in pairs so that they can corroborate evidence. They also travel by car, which is useful if they need to change clothes. The detective claims that his services are essential in divorce proceedings.

Robert Kee interviews a solicitor in his office. He states that it is his duty to try to mend marriages and prevent divorce by advising on counseling services. If all else fails, a couple may get a divorce if one of the following criteria is met: evidence of adultery, desertion for a period of three years, and mental or physical cruelty. If the marriace is not consummated then it can be annulled. Marriages must have lasted for three years before a petition for divorce can be filed.

A woman talks about her husband's mental cruelty: they have been married for 26 years. She finds it impossible to talk to him about their relationship, and he keeps to his room, even to the extent of eating meals there. When their second child grew up she filed for and was granted a divorce. Her husband successfully appealed. She feels that the judge did not understand the concept of mental cruelty. She confirms that no reconciliation is possible: initial love turned to respect, which eventually became hatred, and she now despises him.

Another woman lives with a married man. She became pregnant and was advised by the hospital to have an abortion. When she miscarried, she was told that it was for the best.

A third woman lives with a man who is legally separated from his wife, but she will not consent to a divorce. They have three children. She thinks of this man as her husband, but their strong Christian beliefs make them think that what they were doing was a sin. Following her nervous breakdown, the couple withdrew from their friends and society, and her 'husband' eventually killed himself. She feels aggrieved that the church is opposing Leo Abse's Bill.

A cleric states his views on the churches' attitude towards divorce, saying that it is contrary to the Bible's teaching. He thinks that 'matrimonial offence' should form the basis for divorce laws, otherwise there will be divorce by consent, which he opposes. A second cleric disputes this view, believing that the test of 'matrimonial offence' turns divorce into a redress of grievances, which he feels is wrong.

Leo Abse talks about the thinking behind his Bill. He feels that the current laws divide people into innocent and guilty parties, when the situation is often much more complicated. He thinks that if a couple have been separated for seven years, this should be evidence that the marriage is over, and a divorce should be granted. Some women believe that abolishing the test of 'matrimonial offence' would encourage older men to leave their wives to live with younger women. Abse feels that a young woman who did not have a great commitment to the relationship would not wait seven years.

Edith Summerskill, who founded the Married Women's Association before entering Parliament says that marriage has different values for men and women. Women will put up with cruelty from their husbands to protect the family. She is not convinced by the argument that seeing parents quarrel has a damaging effect on children, as children see quarrels all the time, for instance at school. When asked about the case of a woman who could not marry because her partner could not get a divorce, Summerskill feels the wronged wife should be protected, as she has not committed an offence. Older men often find younger women more attractive and want to live with them, and she cannot support measures which would make such relationships easier.

Abse says that he is not in favour of easy divorce. He wants a good structure for reconciliation: he wants to introduce family courts with professionals such as social workers and psychiatrists to help bring people together. If all measures fail, marriages should be permitted to end.