[JURIST] Malta [BBC backgrounder] voters on Saturday approved a ballot question [text, PDF] asking whether divorce should be allowed in the country. The measure passed with 53 percent of the vote, and saw a 72 percent turnout [Times of Malta reports] among the predominantly Catholic 412,966 residents, the lowest turnout in its recent history. The archipelago nation is the last EU member state not to allow divorce. Under current Maltese law, a couple could apply for a court ordered legal separation or seek an annulment through the Catholic Church [official website]. Foreign divorces are also recognized. The vote was called after legislation [text, PDF] to allow divorce was introduced in the House of Representatives [official website]. Although non-binding, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, an opponent of legalized divorce, stated that his government would move to pass legislation [BBC report] in line with the referendum question, which read:
Do you agree with the introduction of the option of divorce in the case of a married couple who has been separated or has been living apart for at least four (4) years, and where there is no reasonable hope for reconciliation between the spouses, whilst adequate maintenance is guaranteed and the children are protected?
Proponents of the “yes” vote 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 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.