And Now We Wait – Domestic Amendment Passes Mississippi House

Last week, the Mississippi House passed a bill addressing domestic violence as a ground for divorce in the state, just one month removed from killing such a bill. The bill that would modify the grounds for divorce to include domestic violence passed in the Senate, but was not even voted on in the House. Representative Andy Gipson took the brunt of the criticism, largely because of his remarks that if domestic violence is occurring, the perpetrator needs “to have a change of heart” rather than be divorced from.

The specific language of the bill that was killed by the House added the words “including spousal domestic abuse” to the current Mississippi divorce ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Gipson cited the “floodgates” of divorce that would be opened with the bill’s passage as his reason for opposing the amendment. Strangely, the language of the new amendment that Gipson approved seems to extend beyond that of the bill he opposed.

The new amendment allows for a divorce to be granted when both abusive physical and non-physical conduct is taking place in a marriage. The “abusive physical conduct” section provides for a divorce for the cause of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment to be granted to the injured party when that party’s spouse has attempted to cause or has purposely, knowingly or recklessly caused bodily injury to that party. That proposed section also includes putting the injured party in fear of imminent serious bodily harm.

The “abusive non-physical conduct” section is where the new proposed amendment goes further than previous legislation. This section allows a divorce for habitual cruel and inhuman treatment to be granted where a pattern of abusive non-physical conduct such as threats, emotional or verbal abuse, forced isolation, sexual extortion, stalking, and economic financial abuse.

Several parts of this new amendment really stick out and will most likely be the catalysts for this amendment to affect change in Mississippi divorce law. For abusive physical conduct to be grounds for a divorce, the conduct must be established through the reliable testimony of one or more credible witnesses, and any of those witnesses may be the injured party. This is a huge sentence of this amendment, as the majority of domestic violence happens behind closed doors with only the two spouses present. This gives the abused spouse more ammunition than previously available to pursue a divorce.

The standards of proof also play a large part in the new changes. When reliable testimony comes from only one credible witness (who can be the injured party), the standard is clear and convincing evidence, which is the highest burden of proof used in civil courts. When that single credible witness’s testimony is corroborated by other credible physical or forensic evidence, the burden of proof lowers to preponderance of the evidence, or “more likely than not.”

Our previous article talks about some of the behavior that divorces have been granted under habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Mississippi courts have held that this may include only one instance, and that emotional abuse can be considered enough to grant a divorce on this ground. The Mississippi case of Harmon v. Harmon involves a divorce granted for grounds similar to those described in the “abusive non-physical conduct” section of the proposed amendment. In that case, the husband exhibited stalking behavior, often appearing at the wife’s workplace and following her on lunchbreak. He also often used disparaging language toward her. The wife was granted a divorce, showing that Mississippi courts are willing to grant divorces for habitual cruel and inhuman treatment for non-physical abuse.

While the substance of the amendment will not alone provide a large change in the operation of Mississippi law when dealing with divorce, there are two huge parts that we believe will have the highest impact. The first is the provision that allows evidence of domestic violence to be offered by a single credible witness which may be the injured spouse. As mentioned before, much of domestic violence happens without witnesses other than the spouses, and allowing this evidence to come from the injured party helps abused spouses immensely.

The second and not-so-obvious benefit from this amendment is the ability it gives normal, everyday Mississippians for exploring their options. Many instances of domestic violence go unreported for any number of reasons. Often, abused spouses may not even consider speaking with an attorney out of fear that their spouse may find out, possibly leading to physical or economic abuse. Someone being abused may have had a bad experience with the legal system or just attorneys in general. There are numerous reasons people will not speak with lawyers. Not every Mississippian has access to the legal resources that attorneys do, or even the ability to read and fully understand the state’s divorce statute. If an abused spouse believes that speaking with an attorney too risky for whatever reason, explicitly including provisions regarding physical and non-physical abuse allows that person to read the statute themselves and have a better understanding of their rights.

The proposed amendment has passed in the Mississippi House, including the vote of Representative Gipson. Whether his agreement to this amendment is the result of his recent public crucifixion or a genuine belief that this amendment is more satisfactory than the one he killed is of no consequence. If this proposed amendment is voted for by the Mississippi Senate, it will become part of the divorce grounds in the state. This amendment is good for the people of Mississippi, as it provides more understanding into what our divorce law provides as well as more options to those experiencing domestic abuse.

As mentioned in our past articles, if you or anyone you know is experiencing abuse in a marriage, we encourage you to immediately seek help. Our office will be happy to help in any way we can. For help in combating abuse or any other family law problem, please call the Law Office of Matthew S. Poole at (601) 573-7429.

By Kenneth Davis, J.D. Candidate 2017.  Law Clerk to Matthew Poole. 

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