Coercive control private prosecution 'new and powerful weapon' for women denied religious divorces

Landmark case saw woman's ex-husband grant get as he faced the prospect of crown court trial


A woman who obtained a get with a private prosecution against her husband has opened a new legal route for others in similar straits.

Lawyers for the woman - who asked not to be named - brought the prosecution under laws against controlling or coercive behaviour that came into force at the end of 2015.

They withdrew the action in court on Monday after her husband finally granted a religious divorce in the face of a crown court trial in July and, if convicted, a jail sentence of up to five years.

It is believed to be the first time the criminal justice system in the UK has been used on behalf of an agunah - a “chained” woman left unable to remarry according to Jewish law because her husband denies her a get.

David Frei, registrar of the London Beth Din, told the JC it 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.”

Her solicitor, Gary Lesin-Davis of W Legal, told the JC: “Individuals have the right to bring a private prosecution in appropriate cases.

"Prosecution can provide a powerful remedy to protect vulnerable women whose treatment by recalcitrant husbands strays into criminal offending.”

Mr Lesin-Davis said he had already received new enquiries from women this week.

The woman was born abroad and met her husband in Israel. Their marriage did not last long and they had been separated for around five years.

Anthony Metzer QC, her leading counsel, and his Goldsmith Chambers colleague Adam Gersch appeared in court this week to say there was no public interest in pursuing the case since she had now received a get.

The husband had previously tried to press the woman into revoking a molestation order and leaving the country in return for a get, Mr Metzer told the court.

“The defendant was well aware that by refusing to provide a get, the victim would be isolated, prevented from forming a future relationship or having children, and unable to lead an Orthodox Jewish life in the community of her choice,” he said.

A person bringing a private prosecution has to be prepared to foot the bill for their legal costs.

But in a short hearing, the judge this week accepted an application for the state to fund the prosecution costs.

“This was an historic, novel and ground-breaking case potentially of relevance to communities outside the Orthodox Jewish community too,” Mr Metzer said.

“For the first time in the UK, a private prosecution was successfully commenced against a get refuser.”

Mr Metzer told the JC he had “considered a file of potential cases to bring to court in respect of a number of agunot and having selected this one, it is hoped that others will be considered in light of this successful result”.

Under family law, a court has had the power to hold up a civil divorce if there is an obstacle to religious re-marriage.

According to Jewish law, if a divorcee without a get goes on to have a child with another man, the child is a mamzer, illegitimate.

A get has to be given freely by the husband, although batei din in the UK have tried to apply sanctions - such as denying recalcitrant husbands synagogue honours - in a bid to make them grant one.

But Mr Lesin-Davis said the threat of a jail sentence was “a lot more powerful than being told you are not going to get an aliyah in shul”.

Naomi Dickson, chief executive of Jewish Women’s Aid, said: “Denying a woman her get is a powerplay and, as such, is a form of abuse.

“We are very pleased that the law has been used to support this woman, and hope that this acts as a deterrent to further would-be get refusers.”

Joanne Greenaway, the Beth Din’s former get case director, said she was “delighted this woman was prepared to try a new legal avenue and that in this case we were able to use this procedure with a successful result”.

Laura Marks, co-chair of the Alliance of Jewish Women, said: “This ruling shows clearly that coercive and controlling behaviour not just damages families but is illegal.

"We wish this brave woman well in being able to move on with her Jewish and family life and hope this landmark ruling will benefit many more people in the future.”

Rabbi Jackie Tabick, convenor of the Reform Beth Din, was “delighted that this woman has her freedom, but saddened that in certain areas Jewish law has become so rigid that some people feel the need to go beyond the community to find justice”.

In the rare cases a man refused a get, she said, the Reform movement had “robust protocols in place that may allow for it still to be granted”.

Judge Dawn Freedman, who helped to bring in the change in family law to help agunot in 2002, said it was “a fantastic outcome for the lady concerned.

"It is an indication that we have to continue to explore new avenues to achieve solutions to the tragedy of the agunah.”

Eleanor Platt QC, who chairs the Board of Deputies' Family Law Group, said: “We are delighted that the recent legislation has enabled this woman to be released from the misery of being trapped as an agunah.

"We hope that where others find themselves in a similar position, using this route may assist.”

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