EXPLAINER: What are the grounds, provisions in House divorce bill?

MANILA, Philippines – After hours and hours of consultations here and abroad, the House committee on population and family relations approved on Wednesday, February 21, a bill that seeks to introduce divorce and the dissolution of marriage in the Philippines.

It’s expected to be yet another controversial measure, especially since the Philippines is one of only two countries in the world that does not allow divorce as a means to end a marriage. The other is the Vatican, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church.

The proposed measure's champions in the House are pushing for divorce as a cheaper and faster means for couples to end their marriages. In the Philippines, annulments can cost upwards of P250,000 and can take up to decades to resolve.

What’s inside the bill? Here’s a summary:

Why a divorce law?

Section 2 of the bill, or its declaration of policy, says that while the Philippines “continues to protect and preserve marriage as a social institution and as the foundation of the family,” divorce would give a chance for couples to terminate “a continuing dysfunction of a long broken marriage.”

In doing this, the bill says it hopes to “save the children from pain, stress and agony consequent to their parents’ constant marital clashes” and “grant the divorced spouses the right to marry again for another chance at marital bliss.”

Key points in the law

Lawmakers have made it a point, since the very start, for divorce in the Philippines to be cheaper and more efficient than annulment, which is currently the only way to end a marriage in the predominantly Catholic nation.

During the committee’s deliberations on February 21, the members agreed that litigation and fees would be waived for “indigent” divorce applicants. They would also be entitled to lawyers assigned by the court.

For the purpose of the law, “indigents” are defined as those whose real properties are below P5 million, an amount proposed by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. Deputy Speaker Pia Cayetano explained that the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) they consulted had specifically asked that the process would be affordable or would not cost them a year's salary.

Even if divorce is introduced, married couples can still seek legal separation or annulment of marriage, if they wish.

Those who file for divorce will need to observe a 6-month “cooling off period,” as a last-ditch effort to reconcile the couple. This is waived in cases of domestic abuse or if there is danger against one spouse or a child.

“Pro-woman” is part of the bill’s guiding principles, citing “most cases” wherein the wife needs to seek one in order to walk away from an abusive relationship.

An eventual divorce decree includes provisions for the case and custody of children, protection of  the children’s legitime or inheritance, the termination and liquidation of conjugal partnerships of gains or absolute community, and alimony for the “innocent spouse.”

The State, as stated in the bill’s guiding principles, “has the role of strengthening marriage and family life” through programs, both before and after the marriage.

The proposed law also gives space for couples who might have a change of heart. If, in the middle of proceedings, the couple decides to reconcile, the process will be terminated. While the decree of absolute divorce will be set aside, the separation of properties and forfeiture of the share of the guilty spouse will subsist, unless the couple reverts back to the former property regime.

If the court finds that one party is coercing another to file for divorce, he or she may be punished with imprisonment of 5 years and a P200,000-fine.

The eventual implementing rules and regulations for the law will be drafted by several agencies led by the Department of Justice. The Department of Social Welfare and Development, the Philippine Commission on Women, the National Youth Commission, and at least two representatives from women’s groups will be part of the team that will craft it.

What are the grounds?

The grounds listed include existing grounds for legal separation under Article 55 of the Family Code, and annulment under Article 45  of the same code:

The bill introduces the following additional grounds:

How does divorce work?

For qualified indigent petitioners, the court will waive the payment of filing fees and other litigation costs. It will also appoint a counsel de oficio or a lawyer for the petitioner, as well as assigned social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists, to assist the petitioner and the court.

This provisions ensures that those with real properties below P5 million can afford the process. During consultations, lawmakers were told that the cost of annulment – from the filing to the hiring of experts – was simply too prohibitive.

Couples can file jointly a petition for absolute divorce on the grounds of de facto separation for 5 years, legal separation for at least two years, or irreconcilable differences. Those with children should also come up with a joint plan over their parenthood arrangements.

Collusion between spouses is not allowed.

OFWs, as Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman earlier said, will be given preference when it comes to hearing their petitions.

Summary proceedings can happen in case of couples who have been separated for at least 5 years, a bigamous marriage, legal separation for at least two years, sentence of imprisonment for at last 6 years, and sex reassignment surgery. – Rappler.com