As the UK moves closer to allowing no fault divorce where does Hong Kong stand?

This is the first in a series of articles where we examine recent trends in Family Law issues which have a broad impact on the community. This article discusses developments in divorce procedure and the impact of upcoming changes in the UK for Hong Kong 

One of the most frequent questions we are asked is whether Hong Kong allows “no fault” divorces as is the case in many other countries with sizeable expat communities in Hong Kong such as UK, USA, Australia, China and Canada. Recent developments in England and Wales indicate that the era of no fault based divorces may soon come in to force.

The leading case in this area and which precipitated the upcoming legislative changes in England and Wales is Owens v Owens [2018] AC 899. Mrs Owens filed a petition for divorce in 2015 on the grounds that the marriage had broken down irretrievably. The petition was based on Mr Owen’s unreasonable behaviour, being such that Mrs Owens could not reasonably be expected to live with him (which is the statutory test under English law). At this stage, the couple had been married over 25 years and had adult children, but had not separated. Under English law, an unhappy spouse may only petition for divorce against a non-consenting spouse citing separation as the fact for the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage if the separation is for a period of two years with consent or, absent consent, five years or more. The petition included 27 separate allegations of unreasonable behaviour on the husband’s part. Notwithstanding this, he defended the petition, arguing his behaviour was not so unreasonable that Mrs Owens could not be reasonably expected to live with him. At the trial, the Judge found in favour of the husband. The wife appealed and in 2017 the Court of Appeal upheld the Judge’s decision, finding that the Judge had applied the law correctly, and on the facts reached a defendable conclusion. The wife appealed to the Supreme Court in 2018, which dismissed her appeal but invited the UK Parliament to consider changing the law, recognizing that under current law “it is not a ground for divorce that you find yourself in a wretchedly unhappy marriage…”.

Post Owens v Owens, the following key changes are now very likely to be implemented following the introduction of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill:

  • There will no longer be any requirement to evidence conduct; a spouse need only state that the marriage has broken down irretrievably 
  • Parties will be able to make a joint application for divorce where the decision is mutual
  • It will no longer be possible for a spouse to contest the basis of the divorce

It will take some time for the courts in Hong Kong to decide whether to review the changes locally, but it is likely that a review will happen. In 1996, the existing statue (the Matrimonial Causes Ordinance) was amended to allow (i) “no fault” divorces based on one (with consent) or two (without consent) years’ separation and (ii) mutually consenting parties to make a joint application, more closely aligning the law with modern society’s values than the position in England and Wales.   

Today, as in England and Wales, the Hong Kong divorce framework requires one of five “facts” to satisfy the court that a marriage has irretrievably broken down. Three facts relate to conduct: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, and desertion for a period of at least one year prior to filing of the petition. The remaining two facts are: one year’s separation (with consent), and two years’ separation (without consent).  

Consequently, if there is no agreement to divorce, a party can bring an unhappy marriage to an end without the consent of the other only after a two year separation. If a party cannot wait for two years, then he or she would typically cite the respondent’s unreasonable behaviour as the “fact” for the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage (as was the case with the unhappy Mrs Owens). This can cause further conflict as the spouse must “particularise” (i.e. list out) the other party’s unreasonable behaviour. Family lawyers in Hong Kong have adopted for the  majority of petitions relying on unreasonable behaviour a “mild particulars” involving standard generic particulars. Typically the petitioner will state that he or she cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent, alleging certain reasons setting out their differences in an objective way without focusing on specific details.

It is submitted that there would be a significant advantage in Hong Kong Family Law jurisprudence if (i) an unhappy spouse could simply commence divorce proceedings without proving conduct,  and (ii) the respondent was no longer able to contest the basis for the divorce save where it may cause financial hardship by loss of pension or loss of beneficial rights under a trust for the respondent or where no proper financial arrangements have been made for the children. The parties would then start the divorce process in a kinder, less adversarial and more objective fashion which would likely lead to more settlement minded outcomes. The alternative is to maintain the status quo, and in certain situations it is not possible to just rely on separation from a non-consenting spouse as a two year delay may not always be realistic where an unhappy spouse does not have the luxury of finding a separate home (eg in cases involving low income families, or where there is domestic abuse). 

June 2020
Stephen Peaker, Partner and Head of Family Law
Michael Openshaw, Consultant
Family Law Department
Oldham, Li & Nie

This article is for information purposes only. Its contents do not constitute legal advice and readers should not regard this article as a substitute for detailed advice in individual instances.