The Development of Matrimonial Decisions

The Development of Matrimonial Decisions for England and Wales

The January 1967 meeting of the Society was the occasion when Matrimonial Decisions for England and Wales (MDEW) was conceived. It was the idea of Monsignor John Humphreys. With a view to encouraging Tribunal work around the country, Diocesan Tribunals should share their nullity decisions with each other. This idea did not work out. Accordingly it was determined at Wimbledon in January 1968 that the Society offices should acquire all the decisions from the Diocesan Tribunals; remove the names and identifying features in each case; and then print and produce Matrimonial Decisions for England and Wales (MDEW).

It will be noticed that Irish and Scottish decisions were not part of MDEW until 1976. Volume 1, dealing with decisions of 1967, appeared in the summer of 1968. There were some 41 Sentences and these were notionally the only Sentences which had been written in England and Wales during 1967. Reflecting on that fact for a moment, the records show that out of the 41 Decisions which appeared in that volume, sixteen came from Westminster, five from Liverpool, two from Clifton, nine came from Birmingham, nine from Menevia, one from Brentwood, four from Portsmouth and one each from Shrewsbury and Southwark.

The old volumes of MDEW showed the rapid increase of cases in the number of decisions over the years. Whether it was MDEW that helped in this increase it is impossible to say; but certainly other Tribunals which did not have decisions in the 1967 volume might have been encouraged to produce decisions.

The reproduction of all Sentences from England and Wales continued until 1974. The increase in Sentences was rapid and by 1972 there were so many Decisions (over 300) that MDEW had to be published in two volumes for the years 1972 and 1973.

In 1974 it was decided to create a selection sub-committee and to choose approximately 40 to 50 Sentences for reproduction. Since then MDEW came out with around 45 Decisions each year. In 1979 the Tribunals in Scotland and Ireland agreed to contribute Sentences for selection. As a result MDEW became Matrimonial Decisions for Great Britain and Ireland (MDGBI) from volume 16 in 1980 onwards.

In 1991 it emerged that MDGBI was read in some 38 countries throughout the world. In 1992 two professional indexers were engaged by the Society and an Index covering the years 1967 1989 (25 volumes) was produced covering 22 years.

Volume 3 of MDEW (for 1969) reveals the first lack of due discretion case at Westminster in First Instance. (c. Brown 3.7.1969) and the same case on appeal at Birmingham (c. Humphreys 30.9.1969). Both decisions were in the affirmative. From then onwards the number of cases on the grounds of lack of due discretion grew rapidly. The early decisions on the grounds show that there was considerable ambiguity in the understanding of lack of due discretion and the inability to assume the obligations of marriage. At one stage it appeared as if those two grounds were regarded as one. But this was before the final drafts of the Code. The confusion between these two headings continued in MDEW and MDGBI for about 10 years. An examination of the cases on these two grounds would be fruitful for an interested Researcher. An interesting fact (especially derived from the 1969 volume) is that the principal ground decided by Tribunals in England and Wales had for several years been an intention contra bonum prolis. In the 1969 volume in which there were 65 decisions, 33 of these sentences were on the grounds of an intention contra bonum prolis.

The annual production of these decisions has certainly had a very considerable influence on Sentence writing in these Islands as well as around the English speaking world. They have also been an invaluable aid to the Canon Law Societys Jurisprudential Courses for the last 20 years.

                                    Monsignor Ralph Brown


For 47 years the Society published nullity sentences in its annual publication of  'Matrimonial Decisions'.  When the publication of 'Matrimonial Decisions' ended in 2014 the decision was made to publish matrimonial decisions in the editions of the Society's Newsletter.