The Maltese parliament passed new legislation [text, PDF, in Maltese] Monday legalizing divorce in a historic move for the predominantly Roman Catholic country. The Malta House of Representatives [official website] overwhelmingly passed the bill [AP report] with 52 votes in favor, 11 against with five abstentions, in a country where most laws are passed by one vote. The bill will take effect in October after it is expected to be signed by the Maltese president. The vote reflects the result of a public referendum [JURIST report] on the issue held last May in which the public voted in favor of legalizing divorce with 53 percent of the vote. However, the referendum only reflected 72 percent of eligible voters in one of the lowest turnouts in recent history. Malta does allow for court-ordered separations and residents can apply for an annulment with the Roman Catholic Church [official website]. Malta also recognized foreign divorces, a route which many Maltese couples took in order to obtain a divorce. Malta is the last EU nation not to allow divorce.
Proponents of legalizing divorce argued that it was necessary to reduce the influence of the church in Maltese government and to respect civil rights. Opponents argued that it would encourage the breakup of families and increase separation rates. The change will leave Vatican City and the Philippines the last two countries in with the world that do not allow divorce. Chile was the last country to transition to legalized divorce in 2004 when its new marital code went into effect [JURIST report], replacing the code that had been in force since 1884. The new Chilean law permits divorce in the case of breach of marital duties, such as infidelity or domestic violence, or after a period of separation whose length depends on whether one party or both wish to end the marriage. Malta's vote comes a year after the European Commission (EC) [official website] proposed reforms to simplify and clarify international divorce laws [JURIST report]. Under the proposal, married couples from different EU countries could choose the country of the divorce, and the various courts would use a common formula to decide which country's law applies when a couple disagrees.