Strong evidence is needed to support nullity petition

 

LB -v- T MacC

Supreme Court

Judgment was delivered by Mr Justice Kearns on March 6th 2009, Ms Justice Macken and Mr Justice Finnegan concurring

Judgment

The Constitution imposes a clear obligation on the courts to uphold the marriage contract and it would require far stronger evidence than what was adduced in this case to satisfy the court that the respondent lacked the capacity to contract a valid marriage. The appeal against the High Court decision, to the same effect, was dismissed.

Background

The petitioner in this case was an Irish woman who married a Scottish man in Glasgow in 1993. They had two children, now aged 14 and 11. They separated in 1997 and the husband began judicial separation proceedings, which were suspended pending the outcome of the nullity proceedings. In 2000 they entered an agreement dealing with many of the issues in the judicial separation proceedings, including arrangements for the custody of the children.

The respondent took no part in the nullity proceedings apart from nominating a solicitor for the purpose of the service of documents.

The petition was based on a claim that the petitioner’s consent to the marriage was not fully informed and was obtained by misrepresentation of fundamental facts and fraud on the part of the respondent in respect of his personal and family circumstances, his character and intentions.

It claimed that the respondent lacked capacity to marry in that he suffered from such psychological immaturity that he was incapable of maintaining a normal marital relationship and was pathologically given to deception.

The petitioner is a professional person and met the respondent in the course of her work in 1988. The relationship began in 1992, they became engaged later that year and married the following year.

The respondent was a partner in a business but was in dispute with that firm and left it in 1994. He had bought a house in 1991 or 1992 but had to sell it in 1994 to cover debts. He was a considerable financial burden to the petitioner and difficulties became apparent at an early stage in their marriage.

He had no contact with any members of his family other than his parents, and her expectations that she would meet members of his extended family were not met.

She was the main breadwinner throughout the marriage and supported him “generously and financially” though a number of unsuccessful business interests. It became apparent that he was unlikely to succeed in various projects into which he launched himself.

They separated in July 1997 and, though he sought a reconciliation, she did not accept it. Their second child was born shortly afterwards. At the same time he sold some valuable books belonging to the petitioner, and sought to sell other items, leading to successful court action in Scotland for their return. In the High Court Mr Justice O’Higgins found that this was one of a number of deceitful acts by the respondent, and that he had failed to give the petitioner any emotional support during the marriage.

Dr Gerard Byrne, psychiatrist, gave evidence as to the psychiatric condition of the respondent and the petitioner. His opinion was that the respondent had, at the time of the marriage, a personality disorder of such an extent as to make it impossible for him to consent to and sustain marriage to the petitioner. He had a fundamental difficulty with trust and allowing himself to be trusted and constructed a persona entirely at variance with reality.

He believed there was a strong element of fantasy about the respondents personality amounting to grandiosity. He told untruths, not merely to conceal his financial difficulties, but to achieve maximum attention.

It was his view that the particular personality disorder exhibited by the respondent was a narcissistic personality disorder, “with a triad of self-importance, a need for admiration and the inability to empathise with others”.

Evidence of this was to be found in a letter in which he claimed to have been headhunted by a company, when he had founded the company himself; a letter to a firm of art dealers in which he expected services from them though he owed them money; and a greatly exaggerated CV.

Mr Justice O’Higgins had said he did not find these “so outside the norm as to constitute a personality disorder such as would preclude him for contracting a valid marriage. Nor am I convinced that his personality was such as to preclude him from sustaining a relationship with the petitioner”.

He concluded that his lack of disclosure about his financial and family affairs were not grounds upon which one could base a claim for nullity.

Decision

Mr Justice Kearns said that the relevant legal principles relating to nullity had been set out by the Supreme Court in PF -v- GOM (otherwise GF) . Here the petitioner had commenced nullity proceedings on the basis that, had he known that the respondent was involved in a relationship with a third party at the time of the engagement, and which continued after the marriage, he would not have consented to the marriage, thus he had not given full, free and informed consent.

The court decided in this case that if a party to a marriage was not fully informed about the conduct or the character of the other party prior to the marriage, this was not of itself sufficient to render a marriage void. Secondly, while adultery was a ground for judicial separation, it had never been for nullity.

The court had also ruled that while consent could not be considered informed where information relating to a partys mental stability was withheld, this would not be the case where there was concealed misconduct. It found that there was a necessity for certainty in marriage, which is enshrined in the Constitution, and the introduction of a ground of nullity which would bring uncertainty to a wide variety of marriages was not only undesirable as a matter of public policy, it was contrary to the clear intention of the Constitution.

Mr Justice Kearns said the appeal in this was unopposed, but that did not mean the petitioner was entitled to a grant of nullity for the asking. The petitioner must show that the learned trial judge drew incorrect inferences from the evidence, and had not done so.

“He was entitled to disagree with the views expressed by the psychiatrist and did so in relation to the matters relied upon by Dr Byrne.” The fact that the respondent exaggerated his experience and credentials was “a far from unusual or untoward experience in human affairs.

“I have no difficulty in accepting the proposition that, from the petitioner’s point of view, the respondent transpired to be something other than the man she thought she was marrying, but indeed one may regretfully observe that the same could be said of many marriages,” he said.

Nearly all the behaviour relied upon occurred subsequent to the marriage, and did not relate to the respondents capacity at the time of the marriage. “The evidence comes nowhere close to establishing that the respondent lacked capacity to contract to a valid marriage,” he said.

Mr Justice Kearns also commented, “with a degree of regret”, that the Book of Authorities lodged on behalf of the petitioner did not include the 2001 Supreme Court decision in PF -v- GOM (otherwise GF), even though it was referred to in the judgment of the High Court.

He dismissed the appeal.

The full judgment is on www.courts.ie

Identifying the lawyers in this case could lead to the identification of the parties