Marriage of ‘vulnerable’ woman declared ‘void’ by Jersey's Royal Court

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THE marriage of ‘an extremely vulnerable’ woman ‘living a haphazard and chaotic lifestyle’ has been declared void by the Royal Court almost five years after it was formalised.

At a recent hearing, the court decided that the woman – whose identity the court protected – lacked the necessary capacity to enter into a marriage about which the Superintendent Registrar, Claire Follain, and her staff had expressed reservations from the outset.

Giving the court’s judgment, the Bailiff Sir Timothy Le Cocq said that, in the absence of a statutory framework for determining capacity, the Superintendent Registrar was to be complimented on her consideration of the case.

But, he continued: ‘Nonetheless, we view her evidence in the light of the fact that she was simply unaware of some of the surrounding circumstances relating to the petitioner’s mental health in 2017 immediately prior to the marriage, and that this may well have altered her assessment of the position.

‘Having considered the [medical] evidence, it appears clear to us on the balance of probabilities that by reason of the difficulties that the petitioner has, her vulnerabilities, and exacerbated, possibly, by her pre-existing mental condition uncontrolled by medication, this materially impacted upon her ability validly to consent to marriage.’

The woman – the petitioner in a case brought on her behalf by the Viscount, who was appointed by the court to examine the issues – married in November 2017 at the office of the Superintendent Registrar.

Two years later, the then-Health Minister, Richard Renouf, brought an application to court seeking a declaration that the woman should have full-time support, only supervised contact with her then-husband and that she did not have the capacity to consent to sexual relations. The minister also sought a direction from the court on where she should live.

Following what the Bailiff described as the significant restriction-of-liberty order made by the court, there was contact between the couple but, ultimately, the man – the respondent at the recent hearing – instigated divorce proceedings on the basis that the woman was of unsound mind – a petition which the Family Court refused to accept. He filed a second petition in June last year on the basis that the parties had lived apart for two years, and the Viscount was then appointed by the court to investigate the case.

Summing up the issues, the Bailiff – who was sitting with Jurats Collette Crill and Karen Le Cornu, said: ‘Two questions accordingly fall to be determined by the court. The first question is: Did the petitioner have mental capacity to enter into the marriage? The second question is: If the petitioner did not have capacity to do so, is the marriage thereby void or merely voidable?’

In reaching its decision, the court examined the evidence of the Superintendent Registrar and Dr Simon Prangnell, a clinical neuropsychologist with experience in carrying out capacity assessments for the purposes of assessing consent.

The court heard that the Superintendent Registrar had monitored the application for marriage and asked for detailed notes to be prepared. She spoke with the man and woman on two occasions to establish the woman’s capacity to marry, noting that both exhibited ‘unusual behaviour’. However, she said she gained the impression that the woman understood the application she was making to get married.

Advocate Barbara Corbett, appearing on behalf of the respondent, argued that the Matrimonial Causes Law limited the circumstances in which the court could declare a marriage void.

However, the Bailiff drew a distinction between a medical condition which rendered a person ‘unfit for marriage’, and the question of capacity ‘which clearly existed as a ground for nullity and in our judgment continues to exist’.

Making a declaration that the marriage was ‘void ab initio’ – void from its inception, Sir Timothy nevertheless made it clear that the court’s judgment did not prevent the question of marriage being considered again in the future.

‘We understand that many of the difficulties that the petitioner suffers will not be susceptible to improvement over time but that may not be true of all of them, and it may not be that the question of capacity to marry for this petitioner is settled by this judgment for all time.

‘As to whether she may at some point in the future be said to have capacity to consent to marriage must be judged at the relevant time,’ he said.

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