New laws against “controlling and coercive behaviour” have been used to force a Jewish man to grant his wife a religious divorce in the first UK legal case of its kind.
The man’s trial at Harrow Crown Court was set to begin this week, after the woman initiated a private prosecution, but it was averted at the last minute after he granted his wife a Jewish divorce – or ‘Get’ – when told he faced up to five years in jail if he did not.
At the end of 2015 it became a criminal offence to exert controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate family relationship, and this week’s case is the first example of it being used to press a Jewish man into granting their ex-wife a Get.
The pair married in 2012 and problems arose very early on in their marriage, with police called to reports of a domestic incident in the first few months. Within a year, civil proceedings had been issued. In 2015 the family court got involved, after a non-molestation order was issued.
However the man still refused to grant the woman either a civil or religious divorce, and in 2018, after three years of legal efforts, she finally won a decree absolute, meaning that she was now legally divorced.
Yet he still refused to grant her a Get, despite the repeated efforts of the London Beth Din to persuade him to do so, prompting the woman to instruct solicitors to open up a private prosecution against him.
By denying his wife a Get, the man was alleged to have committed just such an offence, contrary to section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, because without it she is unable to remarry, whereas he is free to do so.
The law defines an offence as acts “designed to make persons subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources or depriving them of their independence and regulating their everyday behaviour”.
Prosecuting solicitor Gary Lesin-Davis said: “The Get refusal involved a serious restriction on the liberty of the victim and was clearly behaviour designed to control and undermine her, keeping her in an intimate relationship against her will and preventing her from re-marrying.”
He added that the new law provided a “powerful remedy to protect vulnerable women whose treatment by recalcitrant husbands strays into criminal offending”.
The woman’s use of the criminal process citing these new laws is a UK first and has “wide implications within the Orthodox Jewish community and potentially in other communities, when religious laws are abused by recalcitrant husbands”.
Speaking to Jewish News on Tuesday, Lesin-Davis said the man’s strong legal team seemed to acknowledge that their client was staring at a long custodial sentence, before adding that he had taken “several calls” from Jewish women in similar situations in last few hours.
David Frei, Registrar of the London Beth Din, said: “The London Beth Din was delighted to help resolve this get case. The use of a private prosecution will always depend on the specific situation of each case and so this is not a solution which can be deployed in all circumstances. However, this is a new and powerful weapon the Beth Din can add to its armoury. The London Beth Din leaves no stone unturned in our efforts to support agunot [chained women] and help resolve their cases.”