Get refusal recognised as domestic abuse

Justice Minister says that get refusal will be covered in guidance to new law on abuse


Refusing to give a get is to be recognised as a form of domestic abuse, the government confirmed this week. 

Although the Domestic Abuse Bill - which is expected to be passed next month -  does not specifically refer to the denial of a get, it is to be included in follow-up statutory guidance. 

The move will strengthen the hand of those seeking to liberate agunot -  women regarded as still religiously married (even with a civil divorce) because their husbands have denied them a get - or stop the get being used to extract terms in a divorce settlement. 

Naomi Dickson, chief executive of Jewish Women’s Aid, which has been in talks with the Home Office, said, “The current position is that get refusal is referenced in the statutory guidance accompanying the Domestic Abuse Bill, with a case study, so that government intent is that it should be considered a clear example of domestic abuse.” 

Over the past couple of years lawyers have begun using the 2015 law against controlling and coercive behaviour to threaten prosecution against men who have withheld a get from their ex-wives. 

The new bill will make it easier to take a get refuser to court because it clarifies that abuse can still take place even if the couple are separated and live apart. 

Baroness Altmann, supported by a cross-party coalition of peers, had tabled amendments to include reference to the get in the Bill itself.  

But on Monday she withdrew them after receiving “ministerial assurances that unreasonable and persistent refusal to give a wife a get is already covered by the broad definitions of abuse in the Bill, and I have received assurances that this will be explicitly mentioned in the statutory guidance.”  

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, who was recently appointed a Justice Minister, said he was pleased “we have now included specific reference to refusal to grant a get within the draft guidance. We have also included a specific case study on get refusal, provided by Jewish Women’s Aid… 

“Let me say this clearly and unambiguously: there are, and no doubt will be, cases in which the refusal to give a get may be considered a form of domestic abuse.” 

He explained that including specific circumstances in the Bill itself “such as a refusal to grant a get, may lead to calls for inclusion of other examples which would have two adverse consequences.  

“First, as a matter of drafting, it would make the definition unwieldy. Secondly, we do not want to give the impression by including specific examples that there is a hierarchy of abuse. We are concerned to capture and prevent all forms of domestic abuse.” 

The statutory guidance, he said, would include a section on “spiritual abuse” -  “a particular form of abuse where perpetrators use the victim’s faith or other belief system to control them”. 

Baroness Altmann told the Lords that sometimes a get was refused to “extort money from the wife or her family; sometimes it is to wield power and control out of bitterness or spite; sometimes it is out of a vengeful desire to inflict long-term suffering on the ex-wife.  

“The objective here is to support the victim, who is being treated as a chattel rather than as a person and denied her basic rights.” 

She hoped the changes would “assist rabbinic courts, so that fewer men will play these kinds of cruel games”. 

But she stressed that “legislation cannot force a man to give a get. The religious courts want men voluntarily to attend and grant it. We are sensitive to concerns that a coerced get may be considered invalid, leaving the wife permanently held hostage in the unwanted marriage.” 

Lord Mendelsohn noted that Dutch courts have been making rulings “which have included fines and even imprisonment of husbands unwilling to deliver gets, with all the support of the rabbinate and the religious courts”. 

Lord Palmer of Childs Hill said that the new legal measures were still “not enough”. 

He said he would “continue to call for a more sympathetic approach from the Beth Din religious authorities. They rely on the Catch-22 absurdity that a Jewish divorce is not recognised if the recalcitrant husband is seen to be ‘coerced’ into giving a get, resulting in the divorce not being recognised in Jewish law.  

“Thus the agunah, or chained woman, is prohibited from having intimate relations with a man other than her husband and cannot remarry in an Orthodox ceremony.  

“In a really unacceptable denial of rights, the children will have severe restrictions placed upon them. Children should not suffer in this way, whatever the reason. This is unacceptable in 2021.”

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