Gibson, Colin Samuel Crawford (1972)
Marriage breakdown and social class in England and Wales since the Reformation.
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English matrimonial law until the mid-nineteenth century was administered by the ecclesiastical courts. The high legal fees charged by these courts restricted the number of matrimonial disputes which came before them. Moreover they were not empowered to grant divorce a vinculo. This matrimonial relief could be obtained only from Parliament but few husbands could meet the heavy expenses of a Private Act. The transfer of divorce hearings to a civil court in 1857 benefitted the middle class, though the mass of the people still remained debarred by inability to pay legal and court fees. Wives were additionally handicapped by economic and legal disadvantages. The need to provide working class wives with a quick, cheap and accessible means of protection from cruel husbands led to the establishment of the matrimonial jurisdiction of magistrates' courts in 1878. Study of the resort to divorce before the Second World War shows that it was the de facto non-availability of divorce rather than the lack of acceptable grounds that resulted in the great majority of broken marriages being dealt with in the summary court. Concern over evidence that the inability of working class spouses to obtain divorce resulted in the formation of illicit unions, led to the development of legal aid provisions culminating in the Legal Aid and Advice Act of 1949. This Act has been of special benefit to wives seeking divorce. Legal Aid, higher real wages and greater acceptance of divorce within the community have allowed an increasing number of broken working class marriages to be dissolved. Findings from a sample of 1961 divorce petitions show that social class and the rate of divorce are inversely associated. However, a broad breakdown into a non-manual/manual dichotomy hides variations within individual class groupings. Thus, white-collar workers have a higher rate of divorce than do manual workers. The social class of petitioners was also found to be associated with such demographic characteristics such as age at marriage and divorce.Although the divorce courts have been opened to all sections of the population, the criminal courts continue to hear the matrimonial disputes of the very poor. Evidence from a survey of maintenance orders held in magistrates' courts in 1966 suggests that some 165,000 marriages are neither martially united nor legally dissolved. Half of these separated spouses never seek divorce.
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Institution: University of London, Bedford College (United Kingdom).