The author of this post is Omar Vanin. He earned a Phd in Private International Law from the University of Padova and is now in private practice.
On 7 August 2020, the Italian Supreme Court (Corte di Cassazione) ruled on the non-recognition of a judgment whereby a Palestinian religious court had acknowledged the severance of the matrimonial ties between a muslim couple, on the ground that the judgment offended the public policy of Italy (the ruling is numbered as follows: No 16804/20; the text has not yet been officially published by the Court, but it’s available here through the website Cassazione.net).
Proceedings were brought by a woman of Italian and Jordanian nationality against the recording in Italy of a judgment rendered, on an application by her husband, by the Sharia court of Western Nablus (West Bank). The husband had repudiated the woman in accordance with Islamic law, and the Sharia court, taking note of the repudiation (talaq), had certified that the couple had ceased to be bound by marriage.
The woman argued that the judgment was at odds with the public policy of Italy. She submitted, first, that Islamic law, as applied in the West Bank, failed to provide equal rights to the spouses in relation to divorce, and, secondly, that the she was not given an opportunity to present her case in the proceedings which resulted in the judicial declaration.
The man, for his part, claimed that talaq merely constituted a process of revocable separation, and that the judgment was passed after an unsuccessful attempt by the Sharia court to reconcile the couple.
Islamic Repudiation and its Judicial or Contractual Nature
Islamic law sees marriage as a contract. Talaq is one of the grounds on which marriage may be terminated.
The traditional view is that only the husband is entitled to have the marital ties severed by means of repudiation.
Developments have occurred in this area in several Islamic jurisdictions. In some of them, the wife may seek to have the marriage terminated through a declaration by the competent (religious) authority, based on a breach of the husband’s obligations towards her.
Concurrently, marriage termination is losing its ‘contractual’ features, and rather represents, in some jurisdictions, the outcome of a judicial procedure.
Against this backdrop, a case-by-case analysis may prove necessary to assess whether, in the circumstances, the authorities involved merely attested a unilateral termination prompted by the husband or rather declared such termination based on their own independent assessment.
The Judgment of the Italian Supreme Court
The Cassazione held that, in the case at issue, the basic procedural rights of the wife had been violated. Indeed, the woman did not take part in the proceedings instituted by her husband before the Sharia court, in the framework of which he irrevocably repudiated his wife.
In fact, the woman was notified of the procedure after the judgment was given, and only to enable the court to ascertain that no reconciliation had occurred in the three months following the decision.
In addition, the Cassazione ruled that the judgment was also incompatible with the substantive public policy of Italy, since talaq could only be exercised by the male spouse, thus violating the principle of equality of rights between husband and wife enshrined both in the Italian Constitution and in various international instruments in force for Italy, such as Protocol No. 7 to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Court’s Findings Compared with Previous Italian Case Law and the Case Law of Other States
By the described ruling, the Cassazione took a stance on a topic that lower courts in Italy have been discussing for several years. Prior to this judgment, the Court itself had relatively few opportunities to address the matter, the latest of which dates back to 1983.
The conclusion reached by the Supreme Court, namely that traditional talaq is inconsistent with public policy, accords with the Court’s own precedents and with most lower courts’ judgments. In fact, the reasoning of the Cassazione echoes, to a large extent, the reasoning of several among such lower courts.
In various respects, the views expressed by the Cassazione are in line with those expressed, often in a more nuanced way, in other European countries.
In 2014, for instance, the French Cour de Cassation denied the recognition of an Algerian judgment acknowledging the unilateral repudiation of an Algerian wife by an Algerian husband on the ground that it contravened the principe whereby the spouses enjoy equal rights as regards the termination of marriage.
The Cour de Cassation had previously granted effect to judgments rendered as a result of talaq, through the doctrine of ‘mitigated’ public policy. The latter doctrine posits that, in appropriate circumstances, foreign judgments offending as such public policy may nevertheless be granted recognition to the extent to which their authority is merely invoked as a basis for a different claim, one that is not, per se, inconsistent with public policy (e.g., a claim for spousal support based on the termination of marriage through talaq).
Eventually, the Cour de Cassation abandoned this line of thought in 2004, stressing the radical incompatibility of talaq with a paramount principle of the French legal system such as gender equality.
The question remains debated in France, among scholars, of whether a milder solution ought to be adopted where to deny recognitin would preclude the wife from enjoying some important benefits (see in general, among recent contributions available on the web, this paper by Yann Heyraud).
Note, incidentally, that the concept of ordre public atténué is not necessarily followed everywhere. The Italian Supreme Court, for example, has never explicitly endorsed the doctrine of attenuated effects in respect of talaq or other legal institutions.
Greek courts, for their part, have expressed the view that talaq judgments ought to be denied recognition on grounds of public policy. Recently, however, lower courts admitted the recognition of of such judgments in cases where an application to that effect was lodged by the wife herself (see further the chronicle and remarks by Apostolos Anthimos here).
The position taken by the Italian Supreme could hardly be criticised in itself. The Court’s reasoning, however, is unpersuasive in at least two passages.
To begin with, the Cassazione failed to take a clear stance on the nature of talaq in a situation where a foreign judicial authority is involved in the process. Arguably, the issue has repercussions on the methods through which the severance of matrimonial ties may be given effect in Italy. If the severance of those is understood to be produced by a judicial decision (i.e., one based on an assessment by the authority in question, following the husband’s declaration), its effectiveness in Italy depends on whether the conditions for the recognition of such a foreign decision are met in the circumstances. Instead, if talaq is labelled as a contractual act (i.e., as a declaration of the husband that the competent judicial authority is merely required to attest, e.g., for publicity reasons), then its effects in Italy would depend on whether the act in question was performed in accordance with the law specified under the pertinent Italian conflict-of-laws rules. Of course, public policy may prevent a talaq from producing effects in Italy in both scenarios, but the question remains of whether the issue of its should be addressed against the background of the rules on the recognition of judgments rather than those on the conflicts of laws. In some cases, the conditions required under the applicable rules may not be fulfilled, which would make any inquire into public policy useless.
In the case at issue, the Cassazione observed that the Sharia court of Western Nablus simply took note of the repudiation, without carrying out, properly speaking, any assessment. The Court, however, failed to elaborate on the implications of such a characterisation for the identification of the relevant methods and rules of private international law, and in fact contented itself with noting that the decision ought to be denied recognition on grounds of public policy.
The second questionable passage in the Supreme Court’s ruling is a general remark whereby a foreign judgment declaring the severance of matrimonial ties ought to be denied recognition on grounds of public policy unless such a judgment is based on, or at least implies, a finding that the bond of affection between the spouses has irretrievably come to an end.
Doubts may be raised as to the pertinence of the latter requirement. As a matter of fact, even Italian courts do not inquire into the reasons why the spouses may be seeking divorce, when pronouncing the dissolution of marriage under Italian law.