ANALYSIS OF THE MATRIMONIAL RELIEFS UNDER THE MATRIMONIAL CAUSES ACT AND ITS EFFECT ON A MARRIAGE.
In Nigeria, there are three main ways of celebrating a marriage viz, Customary Marriage, Islamic marriage and Statutory marriage. Each marriage is regulated by its own rules and law and the focus of this paper is on the statutory marriage which has been defined to be the union of a man and woman for life to the exclusion of others. The institution of marriage was one of the foremost and important institution created by God and as such is held highly sacrosanct even till date; hence the creation of its specific rules and mode of action in which an action relating to a marriage should be brought to in court. The High court by virtue of the law has the original jurisdiction to preside over matters relating to marriage and in presiding over issues pertaining to a marriage, there are six main matrimonial reliefs which can be granted by the court asides the ancillary reliefs which relate to maintenance, settlement or custody. The essence of this paper is to discuss the six types of matrimonial reliefs which can be granted by the court and its antecedent effect.
In Nigeria, marriages can be celebrated in three different ways which include; Customary or Traditional, Islamic marriage and Statutory marriage which is the focus of this paper. Statutory marriage in Nigeria maintains the literal definition of marriage as in the locus classicus case of Hyde v. Hyde, which is that marriage is the union of a man and a woman for life, to the exclusion of others. This definition does not favour polygamy or same-sex marriage which has been adopted in other jurisdictions.
For a statutory marriage to be valid, it must be done in accordance with the provisions of the Marriage Act and Matrimonial Causes Act as it relates to form and procedure.This involves ensuring that the requisite consent was gotten, the status of the parties before marriage is right, the relevant notices and forms needed to be filled and published is done, the marriage was conducted in the right place and by the right person recognized by law.
Though marriage is meant to be for life there are several instances where a party or the parties may approach the court for a relief which has a lasting impact on the marriage. When a case is brought before a court, the relief to be granted depends on the facts of the case and before a relief is granted the court must first ensure that it has jurisdiction and the parties are domiciled in Nigeria.
The 6 main types of matrimonial reliefs which can be sought by a party and brought by way of a petition include:
- A decree of dissolution of marriage
- A decree of nullity of a void marriage
- A decree of nullity of a voidable marriage
- A decree of judicial separation
- A decree of restitution of conjugal rights
- A decree of Jactitation of marriage.
A discuss will be made into the various types of relief to further understand why it is sought, the basis of facts to be established before the court can grant same.
DISSOLUTION OF MARRIAGE
The only ground known to the law on the dissolution of marriage is on the ground that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. Every other thing is facts which support the ground that the marriage has broken down irretrievably.
Before a marriage can be dissolved by the court, the parties must have been married for a minimum of two years before the institution of the petition. Any petition brought within two years of the marriage must be brought with the leave of the court. This rule, however, does not relate to matters specified in Section 15(2)(a) or (b) or Sec(16)(1)(a) of the Act which are;
- Willful and persistent refusal to consummate the marriage
- Adultery and the petitioner finds it intolerable to live with the respondent
- The respondent has committed rape, sodomy or bestiality
- The institution of proceedings for a decree of dissolution of marriage by way of cross proceedings.
The rationale of this rule is generally to deter people from not only rushing into ill-advised marriages but also to prevent them from rushing out of marriage as soon as they discover that their marriage was not what they expected.
The court in granting leave to file the petition must be persuaded that failure not to grant such leave will cause exceptional hardship on the applicant or exceptional depravity on the other party and in considering same the facts of each case are considered as well as the interest of the children if any or any means of reconciling both parties. An application for leave to file the petition before the stipulated period is made exparte and the affidavit must state the instances of exceptional hardship or exceptional depravity suffered by the party, the facts the petitioner intends to rely on, children of the marriage if any and other facts as stated in Order IV, Rule 2 of the Matrimonial Causes Rules. Upon the filing of the application and same is granted by the court, the provision of the Matrimonial Causes Rules on service and hearing are to be adhered to strictly.
It has earlier been stated that there is only one known ground in law for the petition of dissolution of marriage to be granted and that is, the ground that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. The ground for divorce is however supported with several facts listed under the Act which includes;
- Willful and Persistent refusal to consummate marriage: for a petition to be brought under this fact the key word is “willful and persistent refusal” to consummate the marriage up to the commencement of the hearing of the petition. Thus, once a single act of intercourse has occurred after the marriage, this fact cannot be applied.
- Adultery and Intolerability: For a marriage to be dissolved on this ground there must be proof of adultery and the petitioner must find it intolerable to live with it. Thus adultery alone cannot be a ground for divorce. The commission of adultery is a matter of fact which must be proved to the satisfaction of the court, mere familiarity of the person alleged to be the adulterer is not sufficient as there must be proof of penetration. The court may also draw its conclusion from exceptional suspicious circumstances as in Adeyemi v. Adeyemi where the husband upon gaining access to his wife room upon several banging on the door, found the respondent and the co-respondent inside the dark room, with the respondent sitting on the bed with a wrapper tied loosely on her and the co-respondent shirt not properly tucked into her trousers. Also, the birth of a child not fathered by the petitioner and a DNA test carried out which confirms the paternity of the baby is also sufficient ground adultery.
On the issue of intolerability, whether the petitioner finds it intolerable to live with the respondent is a question of fact and the test is subjective rather than objective, the court has, therefore, to consider the petitioners feeling. For a decree to be granted on this basis, the person with which the respondent had committed the adultery must be joined as a co-respondent, if however, the name of the person is unknown to the petitioner at the time of filing the petition, the suit shall not be set down for trial unless the court has made an order dispensing with the naming of the person.
- Behaviours of the respondent that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with: where the respondent has behaved in a way that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with, the petitioner can bring an action for the dissolution of the marriage. The acts complained of may be a single act or multiple acts, the key word there is the fact that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with it. Such behaviour could include physical violence, excessive drinking of alcohol, the constant keeping of late nights, bad temper and anger issues, gambling etc. This particular fact involves a mixture of subjective and objective facts. The test is objective because the court must decide whether the petitioner can reasonably be expected to live with the respondent and subjective because it relates to whether the particular petitioner can be reasonably be expected to live with it
The MCA provides for certain behaviours which will satisfy the court to grant a decree of dissolution, they include rape, sodomy or bestiality committed by the respondent, habitual drunkard, taking of hard drugs, conviction of a crime, intentional infliction of grievous harm or hurt on the petitioner etc. The list of behaviours is not exclusive as such several other acts not listed can be ground if sufficiently proved.
- Desertion: where the petitioner has been deserted for a continuous period of at least one year immediately preceding the petition, the court can grant a decree of dissolution. Desertion in this regard is not separate living with the mutual understanding of both parties but where one spouse separates from the other with an intention on the part of the deserting spouse of bringing cohabitation permanently to an end without reasonable cause and without the consent of the other spouse. For desertion to take place, the following must be present viz de facto separation of the parties (bringing an end of cohabitation by severing all marital obligations), animus deserendi (intention to withdraw from cohabitation permanently), lack of just cause for the withdrawal from cohabitation and the absence of consent of the deserted spouse. The period of desertion must be a continuous period of a year or more.
- Parties living apart: The MCA by Section 15(2)(e)& (f) provides for two instances where parties living apart may constitute a fact that a marriage has broken down irretrievably. The first instance is where the parties have lived apart for a continuous period of two years before the proceedings and the respondent does not object to a decree being granted, while the second instance is where the parties have lived apart for a continuous period of at least three years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition.
In both instances, the parties must have lived apart for the period stipulated without a break in between the period. The underlying factor of living apart must also be present and is the same test as stipulated in that of desertion which is physically living apart and such intention to remain apart must be present. Also in deciding that the marriage has broken down on this fact, the respondent to the action must not object to the petition been brought. It has been argued whether or not such non-objection relates to a positive act or negative conduct like silence and non-participation in the proceeding. While the courts are agreed on positive acts, the view of the court on negative acts are divided, for instance in Ibeawuchi v. Ibeawuchi, where the petitioner sought the dissolution of marriage on the fact of two years separation, the respondent did not file an answer nor appeared in court, the court refused to grant the application on the ground that there may be many reasons why the respondent may decide not to contest or object to the petition. However, in Aderinwale v. Aderinwale, the court held that the marriage has broken down irretrievably on the fact that the parties have lived apart for two years through the respondent did not file an answer nor appeared in court.
- Presumption of death: A marriage may be held to have broken down irretrievably on the ground that the other party to the marriage has been absent from the petitioner for such time and in such circumstances as to provide reasonable grounds for presuming that he or she is dead. The burden of proof is on the petitioner to show that nothing has happened within the seven years period as to give him or her cause to believe that the respondent is alive. This may be established by proof of the respondent continuous absence for the seven-year period immediately before the petition.
The above are the facts upon which the court will hold that a marriage has broken down irretrievably. However, the court may refuse to grant a decree either on its own discretion or based on the absolute bars to the decree which include;
- Condonation: forgiveness of a spouse who has committed matrimonial misconduct and reinstatement of the spouse.
- Connivance: where the petitioner has consented, encouraged or willfully contributed to the commission of the misconduct on which a petition for divorce is based
- Collusion: an agreement between parties to procure the initiation of a suit for divorce with intent to cause a perversion of justice.
NULLITY OF MARRIAGE:
In a petition for nullity of a marriage, the petitioner is seeking to establish that the marriage is not in existence or is invalid due to certain factors, unlike a petition for dissolution which recognizes a valid marriage.
A petition for nullity of marriage could be in respect to avoiding marriage or voidable marriage. a petition for void marriage challenges the existence of the marriage ab initio and the fact that the parties never acquired the status of husband and wife, whereas a voidable marriage is a valid marriage while still subsisting but may be annulled by one or both parties owing to some existing defect.
It has been argued that in instances of void marriage, a decree of the court is not needed because the parties never obtained the status of husband and wife, however, such decree may be necessary to allay doubts as to the status of the parties and to declare the existing fact that there was never a marriage. Also, a marriage void ab initio cannot be approbated by the conducts of the parties and any person can bring the action.
For a decree of nullity on voidable marriage, a party to the marriage cannot on his own accord bring the marriage to an end, the marriage can only be annulled by a court of competent jurisdiction and for such petition to be heard, only a party to the marriage can bring the action, this is because, until it is annulled, the marriage remains valid. The court may also refuse to grant the decree where a party by the conduct forfeits the right to challenge the validity of the marriage.
There are certain grounds upon which a marriage can be void or voidable and it is thus imperative to discuss each ground.
Section 3 MCA states five grounds upon which a marriage celebrated may be void ab initio. They are;
- Existing lawful marriage: where either of the parties to the marriage is at the time of the celebration lawfully married to another person other than the party with whom the purported marriage was celebrated, such marriage is null and void. The existing marriage could be of any form either statutory, traditionally or Islamic. It also includes a marriage celebrated by either party under foreign marriage law.
- Prohibited degrees of affinity and consanguinity: marriages celebrated within the prohibited degrees of affinity and consanguinity under the Act is void. Consanguinity relates to blood relationship while affinity refers to persons related through marriage.
- Formal Invalidity: A marriage is void if it fails to comply with the law of the place where the marriage took place (lex loci celebrationis) as regards the form of solemnization of the marriage. In Nigeria, a marriage will be void for the form if both parties knowingly and willfully acquiesce in its celebration under four instances. The key word is both parties “knowingly and willfully” doing so, this implies the mental state of the parties and the fact that they both had knowledge of the defect but still went ahead with it. The four instances upon which a marriage will be void for form include;
- Place of marriage: Under the Marriage Act, the place of celebration of a marriage could be the registrar office, licensed place of worship or a place prescribed by a special license. A marriage celebrated in any place other than these places is void ab initio.
- Celebration under a false name by either or both parties
- Celebration without a certificate or special license under Section 13: Before a marriage can be celebrated under the Act, the parties must have taken the steps prescribed under the Act to get a certificate or special license which includes notice of marriage, publication of marriage
- Marriage not celebrated by a minister of religion or a registrar of marriage.
Thus where the parties celebrate a marriage knowing that any of the above four facts stated above is in existence such marriage will be void for formalities.
- Lack of real consent:
For a marriage to be in existence, the parties must have first consented to the marriage and where such is absent, the marriage will be void. In most cases, it usually not lacks consent per se, but cases, where consent is given but such consent, is not true or real in the legal sense. There are certain factors that could lead to a consent gotten to be declared void, they include;
- Duress or fraud: Where consent is obtained by duress, it simply means that it was obtained under compulsion as to affect the mental state of the party whose consent is in question i.e. the act of duress must have created a state of fear or apprehension which prevented that party from freely consenting to the marriage.
Consent is obtained by fraud where some or a dishonest misrepresentation was made by a party to the marriage and which misrepresentation led to the purported consent of the party. Where consent is obtained by fraud, the marriage will be annulled not because of the fraud but because of the absence of consent.
- Mistake: for a marriage to be annulled on the basis of mistake, it has to be a mistake as to the identity of the other party or nature of ceremony to be performed. Where it relates to the status of the individual married the marriage cannot be annulled.
- Party is mentally incapable of understanding the nature of the marriage contract; a consent given by a party will be declared void where such party is mentally incapable of understanding the nature of the marriage contract he or she entered into. And for such incapacity to be qualified it must be such that was there at the time of the celebration of the marriage.
- Marriageable age: A marriage will be declared void by the court where either of the party is at the time of the marriage of marriageable age. The Marriage Act and the Matrimonial Causes Act did not stipulate marriageable age. Arguments have however been canvassed that marriageable age is twenty-one, this is based on the provision of Section 18 Marriage Act, which provides that either party to a marriage not be a widower or a widow and is under twenty-one of years, the written consent of the father or mother (if father is dead or absent) must be attached to the marriage affidavit. However, Section 21 of the Child Right Act makes marriage contracted by a person under the age of eighteen years null and void.
The above factors are the instances where a marriage celebrated will be void ab initio and its effect on the parties is that their status never changed ab initio due to the celebration as such celebration was never recognized in law.
As stated earlier, a voidable marriage is a valid marriage until declared invalid by the court upon an application by either of the party to the marriage. Section 5 of the Matrimonial Causes Act provides the instances upon which a marriage can be declared voidable and they are:
- Incapacity to consummate the marriage: Where either of the party is incapable of consummating the marriage, the marriage will be declared voidable. Incapacity in this regard must have existed at the date of the marriage and also at the date of hearing to find a decree of voidable marriage. Also, such incapacity must be incurable for a decree to be granted. The party suffering from the incapacity cannot bring this application to expect the party was not aware of the existence of the incapacity at the time of the marriage.
- A party is of unsound mind, mentally defective or subject to the recurrent attack of insanity or epilepsy: A marriage will be declared voidable if either of the party is at the time of the marriage of unsound mind, mentally defective insane or epileptic. What amounts to mentally defective as defined in section 5(2) MCA as a person who owing to an arrested or incomplete development of mind, whether arising from inherent causes or induced by disease or injury, requires oversight care or control for its own protection or for the protection of others and is by reason of that fact unfitted for the responsibilities of marriage. The burden of proving that any of these factors were in existence at the time of celebration of marriage and at the time of hearing rests on the person asserting its existence. Also, a decree will not be granted by the court at the instance of the person suffering from the ailment.
- Venereal disease: Whereas at the time of celebration and hearing of the case either of the party to the marriage suffers from a venereal disease which is communicable, the court will grant a decree of nullity, however, such application cannot be brought by the person who suffers from it.
- Wife impregnated by a person other than her husband: If as at the time of celebration of the marriage, the wife was pregnant for a person other than the husband, the husband can bring an action for nullity of the marriage.
Though the above grounds are the grounds for nullity of voidable marriage there are some restrictions imposed by the law to the grounds especially on Section 5(a) (b-d). The restrictions are complementary to the rules already discussed and include:
- The petitioner must have been ignorant of the fact constituting the grounds as at the time of the celebration of the marriage
- The petition must have been filed not later than 12 months after the date of the marriage.
- Marital intercourse has not taken place with the consent of the petitioner since the petitioner discovered the existence of the facts constituting the grounds
The rationale for the above restriction is to ensure that he who comes to equity must come with clean hands as for where the petitioner was aware of the defect but still choose to stay, he cannot then turn around to change the status already conferred on him. Also where the petition is brought later than a year after the celebration of the marriage, it is presumed that the petitioner has accepted the facts.
Another form of matrimonial relief that can be granted by the court is a decree of Judicial Separation. A decree of judicial separation is brought on the ground that the marriage has irretrievably broken down and must be supported with one or more of the facts listed in Section 15(2) of the MCA. Also, facts listed in sundry sections of Section 18-32 in relation to the dissolution of marriage also applies to one seeking relief of judicial separation.In bringing an application for a decree of judicial separation, the petition must be in accordance with Form 6 of the Rules.
In bringing an application for judicial separation, the defences applicable to a petition for dissolution of marriage also applies.
The effect of a decree of judicial separation, when granted by the court, is to relieve the petitioner from the obligation to cohabit with the other party to the marriage while the decree remains in operation. The decree, however, does not have an effect on the marriage, status, rights and obligations of the parties to the marriage as the marriage are still valid and in existence, and parties for all intent and purposes remain, husband and wife, what is just affected in the marriage is the right to cohabit as all antecedents arising from a marriage still remains.
While the decree is still in force, either party to the marriage may sue the other party in contract or tort. If a spouse dies intestate in respect of any property during the period the decree was in force, the property shall devolve as if that party had survived the other party to the marriage, its effects being that the other party will not be entitled to the rights of a spouse on the intestacy of the deceased spouse. Also, where a husband fails to pay maintenance ordered to be paid to his wife, he will be liable for necessaries supplied to her, this is because upon maintenance ordered the obligation of the husband to maintain his wife even when they are living apart is not abrogated by the decree of judicial separation.
The fact that the court has granted a decree of judicial separation does not mean that the court has been barred from granting a decree of dissolution if brought by any of the party. It rather strengthens the fact of the case for dissolution s the court may treat the decree of judicial separation as sufficient proof of facts constituting the ground on which that decree was made.
Where the parties voluntarily resume cohabitation after the grant of the decree of judicial separation, either party may apply for an order discharging the decree and the court shall, if both parties consent to the order, or if the court is otherwise satisfied that the parties have voluntarily resumed cohabitation, make an order discharging the decree accordingly.
RESTITUTION OF CONJUGAL RIGHTS:
This is a corollary to the above relief and is usually sought by a party where the spouses have been separated and one of them requests the court to resume cohabitation with the petitioner.
As noted earlier, the essence of a decree of judicial separation is to cease cohabitation of both parties, which is a prerequisite of marriage. Once the decree is granted, a party to the marriage, who seeks to cohabit with the other can be held liable for trespass or if the husband chooses to have sexual intercourse without her consent for rape.
In order to avert been held liable for rape or trespass, an order of the court is needed to compel the other party to perform his conjugal rights.
Conjugal rights can simply be defined as sexual rights or intimacy which arises as a result of a marriage relationship. Thus where cohabitation has ceased and one party is anxious to resume normal married life, this action can be brought.
The grounds upon which the decree may be sought is that the parties to the marriage, whether or not they have at any time cohabited, are not cohabiting and that without just cause or excuse, the party against whom the decree is sought refuses to cohabit with and render conjugal rights to the petitioner.
A petition for a decree of restitution of marriage is brought in accordance with Form 7 of the Rules and the petition must state the last date of cohabitation between the parties and the circumstances in which cohabitation ceased.
The court has the discretion to grant such decree and it cannot be granted except the court is satisfied that the petitioner sincerely desires conjugal rights to be rendered to the respondent and is willing to render same to the respondent. Also, there must have been a written request made to the respondent for cohabitation, which must be expressed in a conciliatory language before the institution of the proceedings or special circumstances necessitated the need for the proceedings, notwithstanding the fact that a written request was not made.
The purport of this provision is to show the sincerity of the petitioner. In Ejiofor v. Ejiofor, the respondent petitioned for a decree of restitution of conjugal rights and ancillary reliefs. The appellant cross-petitioned for divorce on the ground that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. The trial judge dismissed the cross-petition ad granted the prayer for restitution of conjugal rights. However, on appeal, the Court of Appeal held that section 49 of the MCA laid down statutory condition precedent to the grant of a decree of restitution of conjugal rights and such conditions mandatory. As the trial judge did not consider the conditions before he granted the decree to the respondent, his action was an error in law and the appeal was allowed.
The court may refuse to grant the decree of restitution of conjugal rights where there is in existence a defence or cause refusing to resume cohabitation. A decree when granted cannot be enforceable by attachment.
Upon grant of the decree of restitution of conjugal rights, the petitioner is to as soon as possible give the respondent notice of the home to resume cohabitation in accordance with the rules of court or provision made.
JACTITATION OF MARRIAGE
A petition for a decree of Jactitation of marriage may be based on the ground that the respondent has falsely boasted and persistently asserted that a marriage has taken place between the respondent and the petitioner. The essence of this decree is to put a stop to such falsehood and malicious allegation.
In bringing an action for a decree of Jactitation of marriage, the petition is brought in accordance with Form 60 of the rules and the content of the petition is as follows;
- It must state the dates, times and places at which the respondent is alleged to have boasted and asserted that a marriage had taken place between the petitioner and the respondent
- The particulars of the assertions and boasting
- Whether or not the petitioner is married to the respondent and whether or not he has acquiesced himself or herself in the alleged boasting or assertions.
In granting this decree the court has the absolute discretion to grant or not to grant the same. The court in exercising its discretion considers several factors which must be compelling and notorious and must show that refusal to grant such decree may be a siege to the petitioner getting married in future (if not married ) or affect other areas of his life. A petition of this sort is usually rare and there is no known case of such as at the time of writing of this article, however, it is a rampant event seeing persons who are not legally married by any of the known means of marriage referring to themselves as husband and wife, most times, when such issues arise, the party may caution the other party mildly or jokingly and that ends the matter. Hence a condition precedent for bringing this kind of application, which is the fact that the petitioner has not acquiesced such representation at any time as of where such is done, the action will be dismissed.
In this instance, there is no known marriage at law between the parties but one is alleging and representing that there is.
This paper has been able to briefly summarize the main matrimonial reliefs which can be granted by the court, how the reliefs can be sort, facts to be relied on, what needs to be proved and its limitation if any. Generally, a marriage is a contract and can be brought o an end however that of marriage is for life as such special instances are needed for it to be entered into and to be brought to an end by the court. From the above analysis, it can be noted that there is only one ground for a dissolution of marriage and same applies to cases of judicial separation which is that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, however, to prove such ground, there must be facts supporting the evidence of which those in the Act are not exclusive. The same scenario also applies to a petition for judicial separation, however, in this instance, the parties are still legally married and the incidence and obligations of marriage are still in existence except for the factor of cohabitation, which can be reversed by an action for restitution of conjugal rights upon fulfillment of the conditions. On the petition for nullity, while a voidable marriage is valid in law and can only be set aside on the grounds and conditions listed, that of a void marriage is invalid ab initio and places no responsibility on either party, thus an order of the court may be dispensed with but it is advisable that same is gotten to clear all doubts and relieve parties of presumed obligations.
 (1886) L.R.I.P & D 130, 133
 Cap M6, M7 LFN 2004
 Sec 3 Matrimonial Causes Act details the instances where marriage will be declared void.
 Domicile for the purpose of the marriage is Nigeria and Section 2(3) Matrimonial Causes Act provides that anyone domiciled in any state is domiciled in Nigeria and may institute proceedings in any High court of a state whether or not he is domiciled there.
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