One year after the Legislature passed a bill expanding the ability of spouses to cite domestic abuse as grounds for divorce, advocates say the law has helped hundreds of people get out of abusive marriages.

Since the law went into effect on July 1, 2017, 608 of 12,918 total divorce complaints in fiscal year 2018 cited domestic abuse, according to the state’s Administrative Office of Courts — a statistic that would not have been possible prior to the passage of the law, as spouses could not cite domestic abuse as a grounds.

The new law, passed as Senate Bill 2680, added the language “spousal domestic abuse” under the grounds of “habitual cruel and inhumane treatment,” one of 12 grounds under which Mississippians can file for a fault-based, or contested divorce. The law allows for the reliable testimony of a single credible witness, who can be the injured spouse.

Prior to the passage of the law, a second witness was required to corroborate spousal testimony about abuse.

That change in the law is a victory, because there are often no additional witnesses in cases of domestic abuse, especially when the abuse is emotional or verbal in nature, said Wendy Mahoney, executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

“Our main thing is focusing on survivors being able to get out of a very difficult situation or relationship,” Mahoney said. “They have some extra support in doing that by having this law in place.”

Mahoney views the 608 cases that have cited domestic abuse since the law’s passage as an indication that spouses and attorneys are starting to become familiar with the law and are using it.

For now, the coalition is collecting data and pulling together resources in its legal services program to monitor how the law is working, Mahoney said.

Of the total 12,918 divorce complaints, 9,125 were filed for irreconcilable differences, in which both parties jointly agree to a no-fault divorce. (Mississippi is still one of two states without a unilateral no-fault divorce provision; the other is South Dakota.)

That means 16 percent of remaining, roughly 3,800 fault-based divorces were filed under the new domestic abuse ground.

“That is a substantial number considering how new the ground is,” said Deborah Bell, a family law expert and law professor at the University of Mississippi, who noted that prior to the change in law, it was “not uncommon for a plaintiff to be denied divorce because there are no witnesses to the violence she has suffered.”

Bell called the law a “very positive step by the legislature to protect victims of domestic violence.”

Gail P. Thompson, North Mississippi Rural Legal Services’ Violence Against Women Act supervising attorney, said she recently used the new provision successfully for the first time in a divorce case in Oktibbeha County.

Her client was the only witness in front of the judge, Thompson said. Despite changes to the law, the judge still insisted on a corroborating witness, she added. So she read him the new statute.

We were able to do it because she was a credible witness. And that’s the standard,” Thompson said.

Harry Yoste, director of the Northcutt Legal Clinic at the Biloxi-based Gulf Coast Center for Nonviolence, says about two-thirds of the cases he deals with are divorce cases.

Yoste says all of his clients are victims of domestic violence, so whenever a client and his or her spouse cannot reach an agreement to divorce on grounds of irreconcilable differences, habitual cruel and inhumane treatment is almost always the basis for the case, he said.

While the law makes these cases “a little bit easier” for Yoste and his clients because a corroborating witness is no longer needed, it hasn’t really altered his practice overall, although this may be because of the specific circumstances of his clients, he added. Yoste works pro bono, and his clients’ spouses don’t often have lawyers representing them in court, he said.

According to Bell, one remaining obstacle to victims of domestic abuse in the realm of Mississippi’s divorce law, which she hopes will ultimately be removed is a common law doctrine called “condonation.” It provides that abuse is forgiven when an abused spouse leaves then returns home, therefore negating grounds for divorce until abuse occurs again.

Domestic violence as grounds for divorce killed by committee chair

Mississippi’s strict divorce laws drew national attention during the 2017 legislative session, when then-House Judiciary B Committee chairman Rep. Andy Gipson was criticized for killing two bills that would have made bona fide separation and domestic violence each grounds for divorce.

“We need to have policies that strengthen marriage. If a person is abusive, they need to have a change in behavior and change of heart,” Gipson said at the time.

Afterward, House and Senate committee members altered a bill that originally clarified legal placement options for abused children to include the domestic abuse provision.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.