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Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970
The Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970 primarily deals with questions in regards to the cash payments from one spouse to the other or for the benefit of the child in cases of divorce and to the adjustment of the property rights of spouses in light of a breakdown of marriage.
1. Why was it introduced? (Political/Sociological Context)
The Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970 was introduced as a response to the need to eliminate gender distinctions from the law and reflect the new social context in the aftermath of World War II.
The reforms concerning the status of married women in the late nineteenth century, coupled with the tendency to afford more equal access to divorce to women, made a considerable advance towards recognising women’s legal status as separate from their husbands’ and empowering them to hold property in their own right under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1923. In relation to the access to women to divorce, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1923 allowed women to file divorce proceedings on grounds of adultery and subsequently, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 introduced three more options for grounds to petition the court for a divorce – cruelty, desertion and incurable insanity. Subsequently, the Divorce Reform Act 1969 enabled either party to seek a divorce on the basis of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage by proving one of five facts: adultery, behaviour, desertion, separation for two years and the other party’s consent to a divorce, or separation for five years.
In the aftermath of World War II marriage started to break down more easily under the after-shock of the war. Both the church and the government became concerned that the divorce laws were no longer fit for purpose. For instance, while women were entitled to keep their own earnings and inheritance upon divorce, so were their husbands. However, unlike their husbands, up until the 1970s, married women had more limited opportunities to earn and few of them inherited. Therefore, in the aftermath of a divorce, they were left with little or no property, so they were vulnerable and disadvantaged.
2. What was the aim of the Act? (Legal Context)
In 1928, the President of the Divorce Division ruled in N v N  138 LT 693 at 697, that in fixing the amount of the future maintenance of an innocent wife, the court should seek to reflect the position in which she would have been if the marriage had continued. The Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970 sought to introduce this overall objective into the statute book through the principle of “minimal loss” – the court should exercise its powers in such a way as to place the parties so far as it was practicable in the financial position in which they would have been if the marriage had not broken down.
Another objective of the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970 was to simplify and reform the provisions of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1965 in relation to the power of divorce courts to order cash payments by one spouse to the other or for the benefit of the children. In relation to the former, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1965 made a number of overcomplicated distinctions between interim alimony, permanent alimony, maintenance and periodical payments. In relation to the latter, the Act sought to remove the distinction between maintenance and periodical payments.
The Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970 also aimed to extend the powers of the divorce courts to order property adjustments upon the breakdown of a marriage.
3. What main changes did it make to the law?
The most significant provision of the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970, which still remains in force today is s. 37. Under this section, a substantial contribution of money or money’s worth by either spouse to the improvement of the family home, belonging to either or both of them, may entitle the former to an equitable interest in the property. The equitable interest is acquired if the party concerned has a beneficial interest in the property and their contribution to it is of substantial nature. The only exception to this principle is in cases where there is an agreement to the contrary between the spouses. With s. 37, the Act gave the courts the powers to reward domestic labour during the marriage, thereby removing some of the gender distinctions from the law.
The Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970 introduced new powers of the divorce courts to order either spouse to make financial provision for or transfer of money to the other spouse or a child of the family.
S. 9 if the Act introduced the power of the courts to order a lump sum to be paid by installments and the power to vary the timing of the installments or the arrangements of security.
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