Judge refuses to allow divorce in Jewish legal row

A SENIOR judge has refused to grant a civil divorce to a Jewish man because he is unreasonably denying his wife a religious bill of divorce.

The ruling, by Judge Viljoen at Watford County Court, is unprecedented and suggests a new solution to the problem of Jewish men refusing to give their wives a get, without which they cannot remarry in a synagogue.

Judge Viljoen refused the husband's application for a decree absolute, the final stage of the civil divorce process. The case, reported in today's Jewish Chronicle, is the first known example of a senior judge supporting a wife's right to a religious divorce.

Judge Viljoen decided that English law allowed him to refuse an application for a decree absolute where it would cause hardship to one of the parties. The husband, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has been given leave to appeal - a process that could ultimately lead to the case being heard in the House of Lords.

Under Jewish law, any future children of a woman without a get are deemed illegitimate, even if the mother remarried in a civil ceremony. Such children are in turn prevented from marrying another Jew in a synagogue.

The plight of these "chained women" - or agunot - has received much attention recently. The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, personally intervened in a controversial case earlier this month, convening a special court at his North London home to obtain a get for a Jewish woman.

The wife in the case at the Watford court said: "I'm a young mother with young children. I would like to be divorced according to Jewish law as well as under civil law, in order to get on with my life." Her solicitor, David Whiteman, said: "This is an important decision by an English court to assist in easing the plight of agunot."

However, Sandra Blackman, co-founder of the Agunot Campaign, sounded a note of caution. "This judge seems to have made a wise decision," she said. "But if the principle is accepted, there is a risk women could be stuck without either a get or a civil divorce."

Judge Viljoen studied letters from the London Beth Din (religious court) before arriving at his ruling that there would be "a grave injustice to the wife if the husband could obtain finality" in the civil divorce procedure, "yet still retain power over his wife in a Jewish court".

He took into account rulings from other cases, including comments made in a judgment by Mr Justice Wall in the High Court last summer, suggesting that civil courts have the power to delay a decree absolute if a spouse has not given a get. This discretionary power was made explicit in the new Family Law Act, but has been shelved over controversy surrounding some of its other provisions.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Pini Dunner, of the Saatchi Synagogue in west London, announced that he intended to display the names of the husbands of agunot on his synagogue noticeboard every Jewish Sabbath, and publish them, on request, on the Internet. He invited any woman whose ex-husband was denying her a religious divorce to inform him of his name, address and synagogue affiliation. Dr Sacks approved the strategy and said that, where all other measures had failed, he would consider adopting it himself.