Saturday, September 8, 2018

Ayn Traylor-Sadberry, Where Irish applicant married Irish man in Ireland based on his fraudulent representations as to validity of his Ohio divorce ...

Where Irish applicant married Irish man in Ireland based on his fraudulent representations as to validity of his Ohio divorce from another, Irish Supreme Court rules that applicant for separation and benefits cannot invoke equitable estoppel to prevent wrongdoer from challenging their invalid marriage but two Justices suggest other civil remedies she might have against wrongdoer under facts found by lower court

In 1968, the first respondent (Mr. R) married the notice party (Ms. N) in Dublin. Both were citizens and residents of the Irish Republic where the marriage took place. One child was born of this marriage. About four years later, the marriage broke up and the parties thereafter lived apart with N economically self-sufficient.

R later met and worked with the applicant (Ms. A) and fell in love with her. He was anxious to marry A and therefore wanted to end his Irish marriage to N. In 1982, while in Ohio on one of several short training trips to his Irish company’s parent, an attorney acquaintance offered to obtain R an Ohio divorce from N. Based on false information that R had an Ohio residence and spent much time in the State, R secured a divorce from the Ohio court. N did get notice of the Ohio proceedings but saw no reason to take part in them or to ask for maintenance, or to have any further dealings with R.

A believed that the Ohio divorce was valid and that R was now free to marry her. When R tried to arrange a registry office marriage in England, however, this office told R that the English registrar general could not recognize the purported Ohio divorce.

In March, 1983, A and R were married at the registry office in Dublin. At no time did R tell A (or the Irish registrar) the unvarnished truth about the Ohio decree. The application to the registrar asserted that R was single. Thereafter, R and A lived together as husband and wife for about seventeen years and had two children. The relationship between the parties later fell apart.

A then issued a family law civil bill in an Irish Circuit Court seeking a judicial separation and ancillary forms of relief. In his defense and counterclaim, R asked (1) for a declaration pursuant to Section 29(1) of the Family Law Act of 1995 that the divorce obtained by him from the court in Ohio was invalid and (2) for a declaration that the purported marriage entered into between himself and A was therefore null and void.

When the matter came before the Circuit Court, the trial judge directed that, as a preliminary issue, there should be a hearing as to whether the Ohio divorce had been valid. A argued, inter alia, that, given the length of the marriage, and R’s fraud as to the Ohio divorce, the court ought to equitably estop R from attacking its validity. She urged that the court could only do justice in the case by barring R’s challenge to her marriage to R.

The Circuit Court found that A was not aware of any problem with the alleged divorce. Based on her reading of what seemed, on its face, to be a judicially approved Ohio decree, A honestly believed that the Ohio divorce was fully effective at the time she married R.

The Circuit Court was inclined to agree with A that estoppel might be the only way to bring some sort of justice to her situation. Pursuant to Irish procedure, however, the Circuit Court Judge decided to refer the following legal question for the opinion of the Supreme Court: “Am I entitled to hold in these proceedings as a matter of law, having regard to the findings of facts made by me, that [R] is estopped from denying that he is married to [A]?” The Supreme Court of Ireland unanimously answers in the negative, with several opinions.

All the Justices seem to agree that the Court’s ruling in Gaffney v. Gaffney [1975] I. R. 133 has laid down the relevant law.. “Thus, arising from Gaffney ... and subsequent decisions of this Court, the law is well established that estoppel may not be used to change a person’s status when that has not occurred, [or] to prevent a party [from] demonstrating that a foreign divorce decree was given without jurisdiction. Therefore, unless Gaffney v. Gaffney is overruled by this court it is a governing authority on this issue.” [¶ 19] This appears to preclude A from having R estopped from showing that he had fraudulently gotten a foreign divorce decree from a court without jurisdiction.

Noting that divorce was unavailable under Irish law until 1996, the Court then examines the viability of Gaffney in today’s world. “A decision of the full Supreme Court ... , given in a fully‑argued case and on a consideration of all the relevant materials, should not normally be overruled merely because a later Court inclines to a different conclusion. Of course, if possible, error should not be reinforced by repetition or affirmation, and the desirability of achieving certainty, stability, and predictability should yield to the demands of justice.”

“However, a balance has to be struck between rigidity and vacillation, and to achieve that balance the later Court must, at the least, be clearly of opinion that the earlier decision was erroneous . . . Even if the later Court is clearly of opinion that the earlier decision was wrong, it may decide in the interests of justice not to overrule it if it has become inveterate and if, in a widespread or fundamental way, people have acted on the basis of its correctness to such an extent that greater harm would result from overruling it than from allowing it to stand. In such cases the maxim communis error facit jus applies.” [¶ 31]

Moreover, allowing the use of estoppel in suits relating to marital status would generate both theoretical and practical anomalies and problems. For example, it would mean that the Irish courts could end up treating people as married for some purposes but not for others.

“The possible effect of the use of an estoppel is highlighted by the potential order of the Circuit Court should estoppel be used. First, there would be a decree based on judicial separation (which is a decree grounded on the parties being spouses) which would be based on the use of estoppel. Yet, on the counterclaim, there would be a decree of nullity, which is grounded on the parties not being spouses. Both these orders would relate to the same ‘marriage’. Thus, the one order would have separate portions effectively recognising a different status for the parties.” [¶ 34]

Here, the case rested on the issue of A’s marriage to R. As precedent and policy dictate, A may not rely on estoppel to prevent a court from recognizing and relying up R’s true legal status as invalidly divorced from N.

Nor is A’s argument persuasive that the case involves purely private arrangements between A and R. On the contrary, a judicial ruling on matrimonial status, such as a decree of divorce, addresses the public at large and is a decision in rem. In addition, many of the financial and property provisions ancillary to a decree may concern third parties such as pension trustees as well as public bodies such as the Land Registry or the Revenue Commissioners.

Justice John Murray (formerly a member of the European Court of Justice), agrees with his colleagues that the governing precedent is Gaffney v. Gaffney [1975] I. R. 133, 152. He quotes a key passage from that opinion:

“The plaintiff was either his wife or she was not. Apart from other legal incidents in this country, certain constitutional rights may accrue to a woman by virtue of being a wife which would not be available to her if she were not. The matter cannot, therefore, by any rules of evidence be left in a position of doubt nor could the Courts countenance a doctrine of estoppel if such existed, which had the effect that a person would be estopped from saying that he or she is the husband or wife, as the case may be, of another party when in law the person making the claim has that status.”

In obiter dicta concurred in by Justice McCracken, Justice Murray looks at possible alternative legal remedies which A might pursue to right the wrong done to her by R’s deceptions. “In a society based on the rule of law it would certainly be a major gap in its fabric if persons who have been wronged in the manner in which [A] has been in this case were to be left without remedy. In such a society, the system of law is intended to be complete, that is to say that within its framework it provides, in principle, a remedy for any denial of rights conferred by law or its constitution (the extent of the remedy may be constrained by public policy considerations in the interests of the common good or, where the right is conferred by law, by the limited nature of the right, but none of these extra considerations seem to me to arise in this context). Either [A] has some remedy against [R] or she has not.” [¶ 74]

“If the law permitted a person to induce, by deceit or fraudulent misrepresentation, another to enter into an otherwise lawful marriage and, after many years of ostensible marriage, to cut himself adrift without any obligation to the other person, it would in my view undermine the status of the marriage contract itself and the constitutional rights which that person was entitled to have protected by virtue of that status. A prosecution for bigamy where a person enters into a second marriage in the full knowledge that a first marriage is valid and subsisting may be a means of protecting the public interest but it is not a remedy which vindicates or protects the rights of the injured party.”

“A declaration as to status can afford protection to the legitimate spouse of the first marriage. In my view it is a direct attack on the constitutional rights of a person for another to induce them or cause them to enter into a duly solemnised marriage contract by deceit when the latter knows that he lacks the capacity to enter into a valid marriage by reason of a pre‑existing and subsisting marriage.” [¶ 83]

“For the purposes of this case stated, on the basis of the facts as found by the Circuit Court Judge, I am quite satisfied that [A] would have a remedy in law for actionable deceit grounded on the fraudulent misrepresentations of [R]. I emphasise that this is based on the facts as found by the Circuit Court Judge in the proceedings before him because, should [A] initiate other proceedings against [R], the onus would be on her, in the ordinary way, to establish the necessary facts entitling her to any relief claimed.” [¶¶ 94-95]

“It seems to me that in any action for deceit based on the kind of facts which have been found by the Circuit Court Judge in these proceedings, a court would be entitled, in awarding damages, to take into account the statutory and other entitlements of a plaintiff who was separated from her ostensible husband and to which she would have been so entitled if in fact there had been a valid marriage.” [¶ 98]

“It has not been relevant to consider whether any conduct of [R] as found by the Circuit Court Judge could amount to a breach of the criminal law. The Circuit Court still has seisin of the final determination of this case and it is in my view a matter for the Circuit Court Judge whether, in the exercise of his discretion, he considers there are any grounds for directing that the papers in this case be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.” [¶ 104]

Citation: C.K. v. J.K. and Attorney General et al., [2004] I.E.S.C. 21, [2004] 1 I.R. 224 (Sup. Ct. Ireland).


*** Ayn Traylor-Sadberry is a domestic relations, probate & criminal attorney in Birmingham, Alabama. Ms. Traylor-Sadberry received her B.A. degree in 1966 from the University of Oklahoma, her M.A. in 1973 from the University of Oklahoma, and her Juris Doctor from Howard University in 1981. She was admitted as an attorney in Alabama in 1989. Website: