Tue | Aug 16, 2022

Divorce boom

Pandemic strain aside, counsellors believe many couples not prepared before jumping the broom

Published:Sunday | March 27, 2022 | 12:07 AMCorey Robinson - Senior Staff Reporter

The best are smooth and amicable, cordial and easy, while the worst are inflamed with raw resentment, lies, and sometimes, even hatred.

Yet Jamaicans are increasingly filing for divorce – a record 4,381 last year alone – as fingers point to COVID-19 and tough psychological issues harming Jamaican unions and families.

According to the Court Administration Division, the Supreme Court last year disposed of a record 3,859 divorces. There were 2,985 cases disposed of in 2020; 3,269 in 2019 and 3,325 in 2018; the pandemic’s restrictions on courts was cited for the 2020 slump in the figures.

Still, a total of 3,689 new cases were filed in 2020, bringing evidence to what marriage counsellors and lawyers have described as a divorce boom that gets nasty when feelings are heavy, and with children and high-value property involved.

The stories range from infidelity to financial problems, bad habits, and botched opportunities – particularly of Jamaican men who marry for the chance to move overseas but subsequently fail. This is reportedly a common trend in light of the growing number of social media applications.

“Sometimes, it is not so much to the pandemic, but how they were raised and the abuses they suffered in those early stages of their lives,” said Pastor Wayne E.A. Palmer of the Jubilee Worship Centre in Spanish Town, St Catherine.

“Marriage is about two unique individuals who have come into a relationship, and sometimes they have not properly solved their issues relating to their weaknesses,” the 35-year minister told The Sunday Gleaner, noting that there has also been an increase in the number of couples seeking counselling.

“And there is an alarming number of separations as well. Most couples don’t start filing for divorce because of the cost of the legal channels,” explained Pastor George Smith of the Church of God of Prophecy in Stony Hill, St Andrew.

“So they are still married, but not together. I think, however, that many of these divorces start from courtship, where people think they get married and then the problems can be fixed as they go along,” he said.

COVID AND DIVORCE

“Then COVID comes and caused a lot of people to be at home, and each person begins to see the true picture.”

Usually, it is the children who suffer the most, Smith feared, citing separations in which children are used as “pawns”.

Fees for divorce cases start at $120,000 in Jamaica and increase with case complexity and assets involved in the matter. Theoretically, a divorce should take 16 weeks, but it could take up to eight months as the court sorts out the division of property, the maintenance and education of children, and so on. Legally, spouses ought to have been separated for a year.

The Property (Rights of Spouses) Act sets out how assets should be divided, guided by the equal share rule that establishes that they be shared divided between spouses at the end of a marriage. This rule, however, can be varied by the court based on each case’s circumstances.

“For instance, if someone’s father left some land for them, the property was inherited, it would not be up for equal division after the marriage ends,” explained attorney Latoya Latibeaudiere. “And if one party owned the property (house) before the marriage, the general presumption is that the property would not be subject to the equal share rule.”

She noted that the courts also consider the duration of the union, “and there is also a catch-all that says that the court can consider any other factor that it deems relevant, such as financial contributions, to determine whether it would be unjust or unfair to apply the equal-share-rule”.

This explains how businesswoman Claudette Crooks-Collie won her latest battle against attempts by her estranged husband, a medical doctor and former politician, Dr Charlton Collie, to have a share in her $85-million St Andrew home.

The Court of Appeal overturned a lower court’s ruling that Dr Collie was entitled to a 20 per cent interest in the property to which he only contributed $1.3 million in “cosmetic” support. He wanted half of the property value.

“In this case, this man was married to this woman for only about 17 months, even though they had a relationship prior,” explained attorney Shauna Gay Mitchell.

“These are some of the arguments the court would have taken into consideration, that: one, the marriage is of short duration, that this lady owned the property for a very long time before they got married, and that he didn’t make any financial contribution [towards] the purchase of the property,” said Mitchell, noting that overall couples should be more prudent.

“What is important is that when people are entering a marriage, it is a good thing for you to sit down with your attorney and get some legal advice,” she said. “It is very common in Jamaica; people are investing and it is when they find themselves in a problem now that they try to backtrack, but they did it initially in the wrong way.”

In the meantime, Nicole Whyte, the marketing manager at the Registrar General’s Department said of the registry’s in-house wedding service, available for couples wanting to marry on a slim budget, had also been hit hard by the pandemic.

“For the period January 2016 to December 2019, marriages conducted at the head office at Twickenham Park, St. Catherine were approximately 900 for each year,” she said.

“Since the pandemic, a significant decline occurred from February 2020 to December 2020. An approximate figure for marriages within this period was 650,” she continued.

Whyte added that last year, there were roughly 578 weddings.

corey.robinson@gleanerjm.com