During recent years the law has entirely altered regarding women, tending to improve the position of wives generally, but particularly as to property. Prior to 1883 a married woman could not hold property independently of her husband, unless it was specially settled on her through trustees for her separate use. Now she is entitled to acquire and retain any property as if unmarried. She may also carry on business apart from her husband, without his interference.
No order can be made in favour of a wife who has been guilty of adultery, unless the husband has condoned, or connived at, or, by wilful neglect, misconduct, &c., conduced to such adultery.
A Court may, on a husband’s non-compliance, order alimony (provision for maintenance) to be paid to the wife, and if necessary, may enforce that order, if disobeyed, by compelling the settlement of some property on the wife. On the other hand, a wife having property may, on neglect to comply with the order of the Court against her be required to make a settlement in favour of her husband and children.
A husband is bound to maintain his wife, and if he neglects to do so or deserts her and she becomes chargeable on the parish, &c., such authority may proceed against him, to obtain an order for the payment of a periodical sum towards her maintenance.
A husband who is able to provide for his wife may be compelled to do so although he is not possessed of property, but a wife cannot be required to maintain her husband, unless she has property, and he becomes chargeable on any union or parish. If she has property she is also liable for the maintenance of her children, and if necessary, grandchildren under sixteen years of age ; but the husband is primarily liable for the maintenance of all his children or grandchildren, by this or any other marriage.
Although man and wife may not sue each other for damages for assault, either may proceed against the other before a magistrate, requiring him or her to find sureties to keep the peace, if in danger of violence.
See under the heading, Bankruptcy.
If either deserts the other, an application may be made to the High Court of an order for restitution of conjugal rights. Such application must be made in the Divorce Division of the High Court, in which division all matrimonial cases are tried.
Originally in the eye of the law, husband and wife were one person, and the man had power and dominion over his wife, and judges have even ruled that a man had the right to beat his wife and forcibly to detain her when she threatened to leave him. Recent judicial decisions, however, have placed husband and wife on an equal basis.
A person persuading a wife not to reside with her husband renders himself liable to pay damages to the husband, unless the former so acted in order to protect her from ill-usage, as alleged by her, even though such allegations were proved to be unfounded.
A wife can now petition for divorce on the ground only of adultery committed by her husband since 17th July, 1923, as well as on other grounds. Generally a decree for divorce will not be made against a wife, if the husband has been guilty of adultery.
A husband can recover damages against a man who has committed adultery with his wife, joining him as a party called the ‘corespondent,’ and he may be ordered to pay the costs of both husband and wife.
A marriage may be annulled by the Court on the ground that one of the parties was already married to another person, was insane, or on other grounds.
The father is the natural guardian of his infant children, but if he is unfit for the care of them, the Court will give the custody to the mother.
Husband’s Absurd Liability. —
Although a wife may have property of her own, and, whether having any property or not, may be sued for any wrong done by her, yet her husband is still liable also for wrongs (‘torts’) of a personal nature, as libel or slander, committed by her during the marriage, but not for torts by the wife in respect of her contracts. The husband may accordingly be sued, or joined with his wife as a co-defendant, in an action for libel, slander, or other personal wrong by his wife.
Even if a wife is able to maintain herself, her husband, while they are living together, is liable for debts contracted by her for necessities— including, not only food, but also dress and medical attendance. He may, however, explicitly forbid her to pledge his credit, or may make her an allowance to provide such things, in which cases he is not liable, though the law in this respect was formerly other- wise. If he has previously paid bills for goods ordered by his wife, and does not intend to pay such bills in future, he must give notice accordingly to the tradesmen. A notice in a newspaper repudiating liability for debts contracted by his wife, would not, in such cases, be sufficient to exonerate him.
Power of Contract.
A married woman may now enter into, and render herself liable on, any contract, and may sue or be sued as if she was single, and her property may be taken by law for payment of her debts, but not property to the income of which she is entitled without power of anticipation during her marriage, provided that the restraint on anticipation was not made by herself. A married woman cannot, however, be imprisoned for neglecting to pay any debt, or any instalment of debt, although payable under a Court order.
Power to Sue.
Man and wife can now sue, and bo sued by, each other, upon any contract, and obtain judgment for money lent, &c. But they cannot take proceedings in respect of personal wrong done, as assault, libel or slander.
Priority of Death.
Sometimes husband and wife die under circumstances which make it impossible to determine which died first, as when both are killed in a railway accident. It was formerly held that a man, being considered the stronger, survived his wife, but now, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the presumption is that the younger survives the elder.
Formerly a married woman was under disabilities regarding property, and the husband, in the absence of a marriage settlement, was entitled to receive rents of her freehold property for his own use during the marriage. With some exceptions and reservations he could become possessed, for his own use, of all other property of his wife. Under the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, however, the wife retained, for her own separate use, all property acquired by her during marriage, and might dispose of it as if she were single.
A wife may apply to the magistrates for an order for separation and maintenance if her husband has been convicted of aggravated assault upon her, fined more than £5 or sentenced to more than two months’ imprisonment for such assault, or if he has been persistently cruel to her or her children, &c. A husband may apply for a separation order against his wife if she has been persistently cruel to her children. Voting Powers.
Married women are entitled to vote at Parliamentary or municipal elections, if their husbands are so entitled, or they may acquire a qualification of their own. They may be elected Members of Parliament, or members of a local or district council, or boards of guardians. They can also qualify as doctors of medicine, surgeons, barristers, solicitors, or to any official capacity, but they may not serve as clergy of the Church of England or of Rome. They may be required to act as jurors.
A wife has now as much power as her husband to dispose of property by will, and if no will is made, the property passes in accordance with the stipulations laid down by law. Details can be obtained from the local Registry of Probate.
A wife is entitled to carry on trade or business for her own benefit quite independently of her husband, and is entitled to all profits thereof.