Russian Consulate Divorce Invalid in UK

In a case which raised novel issues of international law in the context of divorce – and which resulted in a wife unwittingly entering into a bigamous marriage – the High Court has ruled that a Russian couple who divorced in their national consulate in London remained married under the laws of the United Kingdom.

Following the breakdown of their childless relationship, the former couple attended the Russian consulate and obtained certificates of divorce. There was no dispute that they had been divorced in accordance with the laws of the Russian Federation. The wife had subsequently re-married in America. The husband had planned to marry his fiancée in England before a question mark was raised as to his marital status. In consequence, she had to temporarily leave Britain.

The former couple made common cause in seeking a declaration that they had been validly divorced at the consulate. However, their case fell foul of Section 44(1) of the Family Law Act 1986, which provides that no divorce obtained in any part of the British Isles will be regarded as effective in any part of the UK unless granted by a court of civil jurisdiction.

In ruling that, so far as the UK was concerned, the former couple remained married, the Court noted that the consulate of a foreign state is, for the relevant purpose at least, regarded as being English and not foreign territory. It was thus quite clear that the divorce had been obtained in England at the moment when the certificates had been handed to the parties. The Court rejected arguments that the divorce did not take effect until documents were transmitted from the consulate to Moscow and filed within the centralised Russian bureaucracy.