High Court overturns rabbinical divorce ruling

Woman appealed rabbinical court decision in 7-year divorce case to handle financial, property issues instead of family court.

Jerusalem Rabbanut 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem Rabbanut 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The High Court of Justice on Tuesday vetoed the jurisdiction of the Rabbinical High Court in a divorce case regarding economic and property issues.
The Rabbinical High Court had upheld a decision by a lower rabbinical court in Petah Tikva that because the couple had filed a divorce agreement with the rabbinical courts before the woman tried to go to a Rishon Lezion family court, the rabbinical courts would handle all the issues in the case, including economic and property issues.
On Tuesday, seven years after the initial filing for divorce, the High Court ruled that the family court would handle the case.
The rabbinical courts and the family court have overlapping jurisdiction, meaning that either of the courts can handle the same case, and occasionally the two courts will split different aspects of a single case between them.
Ultimately, in this case, the rabbinical court retained control over finalizing the divorce settlement itself, but the woman’s main goal had been to have the family court decide the economic and property issues.
There is a general feeling – accurate or not – among legal practitioners that women receive more favorable economic and property rulings in family courts than they do in rabbinical courts.
It is rare, but not unprecedented, for the Rabbinical High Court to fight the jurisdiction of a family court judge, and even more rare for the High Court of Justice to intervene and overturn the Rabbinical High Court.
In essence, the woman’s argument was that her husband had beaten her until she felt coerced into signing the divorce agreement.
The agreement, which included her confirmation that she was a “traitor” and a “liar,” was invalid and would not have been signed freely by anyone, argued the woman.
The bizarre document also had the woman affirm that she had forged checks, been responsible for multiple miscarriages and done a bad job as a mother, worrying more about herself than about her children.
The agreement also essentially gave all economic and custody rights – normally the subject of some litigation – to the husband, raising further suspicion.
However, once the rabbinical court claimed that it had jurisdiction over dividing the couple’s economic assets, the family court dropped the woman’s case.
In light of the family court’s unwillingness to fight with the rabbinical court over the case, the woman initially appealed to the Rabbinical High Court.
She lost the appeal in February 2007 on the basis that a filed divorce agreement, when no other legal process had begun, gave the rabbinical courts control of the case.
However, even as she lost the appeal, one of the Rabbinical High Court judges dissented, noting that the agreement was a farce and that such an obviously coerced agreement could not be the basis of a rabbinical court’s jurisdiction.
The woman was in such bad shape from the abuse that she had turned to a shelter for battered women a few days after filing the divorce agreement.
Following her visit to the shelter, and 10 days after filing the divorce agreement with the rabbinical courts, she filed a divorce case in the family court system.
The rabbinic courts resisted her filing, saying that because a divorce agreement had been filed with them first, the family courts could not handle the case.
Through attorneys Adi Raz, of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women at Bar Ilan University, and Shiri Malka, the woman eventually filed a petition with the High Court, which held an unusual five hearings on the case, beginning in February 2009.
The husband argued that the rabbinical courts also had control of the case based on additional proceedings he had filed with the courts.
Further, he contended that it was irrelevant whether the court ratified the divorce agreement, which was in doubt; what mattered was that the agreement had been filed and that the woman did in fact want a divorce.
The High Court rejected these arguments, essentially saying that the rabbinic courts were not defending their judicial territory, but seeking to expand it in an improper manner since the filed divorce agreement did not grant them jurisdiction over property and economic issues.
At most, the filing of the divorce agreement granted the rabbinical courts control over finalizing the divorce itself, which was not done until December 2008.
But the main question for deciding conflicting issues of jurisdiction was where the first complaint had been filed for opening a formal legal proceeding – which in this case was the family court.
When the divorce agreement was initially filed with the rabbinical courts, it had been done without a formal complaint to open full proceedings.
The High Court challenged the High Rabbinical Court, contending that it would not have given any legal standing whatsoever to a presented agreement that it knew was a forgery.
In dramatic fashion, the High Court said it viewed the agreement that the woman had signed under coercion as far more problematic legally than a forgery, and that there could be no justification for even relating to the agreement as having any significance.
With a poetic Aramaic reference, best known from the declaration one makes before Passover regarding forbidden food products, the court said the agreement had the standing of “the dust of the earth.”
Besides ruling for the woman on the substantive dispute, the court also granted the woman’s request for the rabbinical courts to reimburse her for the costs of the litigation.
The couple was married in 1988 and had four children together. Their “joint” divorce agreement was filed with the rabbinic courts in 2005.
Despite the ultimate result, the woman was stuck waiting for the High Court’s intervention for seven years on the economic and property issues, and only now can she have her day in (family) court.