The Court of Appeal has acknowledged that a wife who today lost her appeal to overturn the Central Family Court’s refusal to grant her a divorce will be left in a ‘very unhappy situation’, prompting renewed calls for ‘outdated’ divorce law to be reformed.

Handing down judgment in Tini Owens v Hugh John Owens this morning, Family Division president Sir James Munby said the court could not interfere with His Honour Judge Tolson QC’s decision to refuse to grant Tini Owens a decree nisi, even though the judge had correctly found that the marriage had broken down.

Munby said Tolson had ‘directed himself correctly in law’. He added: ‘In relation to the facts, and how they were to be evaluated, he was entitled to find as he did and for the reasons he gave. His reasoning, in my judgment, displays no error of law, principle or approach.’

Reaching the same conclusion, Lady Justice Hallett said she could not find a legitimate basis for challenging Tolson’s conclusions.

She added: ‘I very much regret that our decision will leave the wife in a very unhappy situation. I urge the husband to reconsider his position. On any view, the marriage is over. I can only hope that he will relent and consent to a divorce on the grounds the parties have lived apart for a continuous period of two years, rather than force his wife to wait until five years have elapsed.’

Today’s decision has reignited widespread calls for divorce law to be reformed urgently.

Nigel Shepherd, chair of family group Resolution, said: ‘Nobody should be compelled to remain in a marriage against their will, yet judges’ hands are tied by the current divorce law. Sadly, all too often, couples are forced to play the blame game, and today’s decision demonstrates why this needs to change.

‘The simple fact is, this case should not have been necessary. Only by implementing a no-fault divorce system can we ensure such a situation doesn’t happen again.’

Last month the government confirmed it had no current plans to change existing legislation. Justice minister Lord Keen of Elie (Richard Keen QC) said the government was committed to improving the family justice system so that separating couples can ‘achieve the best possible outcomes for themselves and their families’. 

He added: ‘Whilst we have no current plans to change the existing law on divorce, we are considering what further reforms to the family justice system may be needed.’

Ayesha Vardag, president of divorce specialist Vardags, today said the fault-based divorce principle has caused ‘significant misery and costs’ in Owens v Owens. ‘It does so on a smaller scale for thousands of couples each year. It is time that government stepped in and brought meaningful reform to our outdated divorce laws,’ she added.

Jo Edwards, partner and head of family law at London firm Forsters, said today’s decision will ‘add grist to the mill’ of many judges and practitioners campaigning for a no-fault divorce system. She added: ‘To change the law would not be about making marriage more disposable and divorce easy. Instead, it would enable couples to divorce with dignity and in a way that protects children from the fallout.’