Grounds for Divorce in South Africa


GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE IN SOUTH AFRICA

Dissolution of marriage and grounds of divorce

A marriage may be dissolved by a court by a decree of divorce and the only grounds on which such a decree may be granted in terms of the South African Divorce Act are

  • the irretrievable break-down of the marriage as contemplated in section 4;
  • the mental illness or the continuous unconsciousness, as contemplated in section 5, of a party to the marriage.

Irretrievable break-down of marriage as ground of divorce

A court may grant a decree of divorce on the ground of the irretrievable break-down of a marriage if it is satisfied that the marriage relationship between the parties to the marriage has reached such a state of disintegration that there is no reasonable prospect of the restoration of a normal marriage relationship between them.

Section 4 (2) of the Divorce Act lays down three circumstances which a Court may accept as evidence of irretrievable breakdown of a marriage and these are that:-

  • the parties have not lived together as husband and wife for a continuous period of at least one year immediately prior to the date of the institution of the divorce action.
  • the Defendant has committed adultery and that the Plaintiff finds it irreconcilable with a continued marriage relationship
  • the Defendant has in terms of a sentence of a Court been declared a habitual criminal and is undergoing imprisonment as a result of such sentence.

This does not mean however that:- the man and wife have to live in separate buildings but in the past our Courts have been unwilling to (even on a undisputed basis), hear the case if the parties are still living in the same house on the date of the application. There must be a reasonable explanation, but even then some judges have refused to grant a decree of divorce.

If the Plaintiff is a party to an adulterous relationship it may be proof of a real break-down of the marriage. If irretrievable breakdown has been proved, the court still has discretion to refuse the divorce.

In terms of section 4(3) of the Divorce Act the Court still has discretion not to grant a divorce order but postpone the proceedings sine die or even dismiss the claim if it appears to the Court that there is a reasonable possibility that the parties may become reconciled through marriage counselling, treatment or reflection. The Summons also usually contains the averment that further marriage counselling and/or treatment will not lead to any reconciliation. This evidence must also be tendered to the Court even on an unopposed basis.

The Court must therefore be satisfied that the marriage has really irretrievably broken down and that there is no possibility of the continuation of a normal marriage, before a final divorce order will be granted.

The court may postpone the proceedings in order that the parties may attempt reconciliation if it appears to the court that there is a reasonable possibility that the parties may become reconciled through marriage counselling, treatment or reflection.

Where the parties live together again after the issue of Summons, it does not necessarily end the underlying cause of the action. If the reconciliation after a few months is seemingly unsuccessful, they can proceed on the same Summons.  Where a divorce action which is not defended is postponed in order to afford the parties an opportunity to attempt reconciliation, the court may direct that the action be tried de novo, on the date of resumption thereof, by any other magistrate/ judge of the court concerned in terms of section 4(4) of the Divorce Act.

A customary marriage may be dissolved only on account of an irretrievable breakdown in the marriage and only if the High, Family or Divorce Court is satisfied that the marriage relationship between the parties has reached such a state of disintegration that there is no reasonable prospect of the restoration of a normal marriage relationship between them.

Mental illness or continuous unconsciousness as grounds of divorce:

A court may grant a decree of divorce on the ground of the mental illness of the defendant if it is satisfied that the defendant, in terms of the Mental

Health Act 18 of 1973; has been admitted as a patient to an institution in terms of a reception order; is being detained as a State patient at an institution or other place specified by the Minister of Correctional Services; or is being detained as a mentally ill convicted prisoner at an institution.

A divorce order may also be granted if such defendant has also for a continuous period of at least two years immediately prior to the institution of the divorce action, not been discharged unconditionally as such a patient,

State patient or mentally ill prisoner; and the court has heard evidence of at least two psychiatrists, of whom one shall have been appointed by the court, that the defendant is mentally ill and that there is no reasonable prospect that he will be cured of his mental illness.

A court may grant a decree of divorce on the ground that the defendant is by reason of a physical disorder in a state of continuous unconsciousness, if it is satisfied that the defendant’s unconsciousness has lasted for a continuous period of at least six months immediately prior to the institution of the divorce action; and after having heard the evidence of at least two medical practitioners, of whom one shall be a neurologist or a neurosurgeon appointed by the court, that there is no reasonable prospect that the defendant will regain consciousness.

The court may appoint a legal practitioner to represent the defendant at proceedings under this section and order the plaintiff to pay the costs of such representation.

The court may make any order it may deem fit with regard to the furnishing of security by the plaintiff in respect of any patrimonial benefits to which the defendant may be entitled by reason of the dissolution of the marriage.

For the purposes of this section the expressions ‘institution’, ‘mental illness’, ‘patient’, ‘State patient’ and ‘reception order’ shall bear the meaning assigned to them in the Mental Health Act, 1973.

The circumstances under which a court may grant a divorce order on the basis of mental illness or continuous unconsciousness is as follows:-

  •  In the case of mental illness the Defendant must have been admitted, in terms of the Mental Health Act, 1973 (Act No 18 of 1973), as a patient to an institution in terms of a reception order, for a period of at least two years and in any case two psychiatrists (one appointed by the Court) must satisfy the Court that there is no reasonable prospect that he will be cured of his mental illness.
  • In the case of unconsciousness the Court will only grant the order if the Defendant was unconscious for a continuous period of at least six months immediately prior to the institution of the action and also after hearing the evidence of two medical practitioners of whom one shall be a neurologist or a neuro-surgeon appointed by the Court who must declare that there is no reasonable prospect that the Defendant will regain consciousness.

In such cases a curator ad litem must be appointed to protect the interests of the Defendant (patient) and to assist the Court.

Bertus Preller is a Divorce and Family Law Attorney in Cape Town and has more than 20 years experience in most sectors of the law and 13 years as a practicing attorney. He specializes in Family law and Divorce Law at Abrahams and Gross Attorneys Inc. in Cape Town. Bertus is also the Family Law expert on Health24.com and on the expert panel of Law24.com and is frequently quoted on Family Law issues in newspapers such as the Sunday Times and Business Times. His areas of expertise are Divorce Law, Family Law, Divorce Mediation, Parenting Plans, Parental Responsibilities and Rights, Custody (care and contact) of children, same sex marriages, unmarried fathers rights, domestic violence matters, international divorce law, digital rights, media law and criminal law.

11 thoughts on “Grounds for Divorce in South Africa

  1. Please help me, my husband wants to get a divorce but I don’t want one. I still think we can work things out. I want to go for counciling and he does not. He told me he still loves me but that we fight too much. I also still love him. We have not been living together for 1 week. I have tried to talk to him but he won’t listen to me.

  2. Hi. My husband hits me. We argue a lot about his family. They interfere in our marriage. He has even hit me whilst I was holding baby. My concern is baby. Do we get joint custody as to were he takes baby every second week or does he get visitation rights only. I have a protection order against him.

  3. My wife and I got married in London @ a registry office. She is Portuguese. I am South african. We now live in south africa. How would I know what type of marriage contract it is if we gonna get divorced? We also have a 5 year old son.

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