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This week, the Legal Aid Center and Hotline filed two appeals in the High Rabbinical Courts. Knowing something about our rabbinical appellate cases will give you a better understanding of the challenges that we face and the nature of our work. Appeals are very important for our work since it is our experience that many of the justices in the High Rabbinical Court are more sensitive to women's issues and are therefore more likely to interpret the halakhah [Jewish Law] in an open and creative manner.
File 1: Can a husband retroactively void a get which was given in the rabbinical court, in front of the rabbis, on grounds of duress?
F originally came to us for help in obtaining a get from her husband, a homosexual who had repressed his sexual identity for years, including one unsuccessful year trying to "recover" from his homosexuality through a support group for married gay men. F believed that her husband might agree to give her a get; we explained what her rights were and advised her to try reaching an agreement with her husband before suing in the civil or rabbinical courts.
Indeed, F was successful in reaching a settlement with her husband. She was very young and inexperienced, and the cause of action was extremely sensitive, so we agreed to help make sure that the get would be delivered as soon as possible. After three court appearances, the get ceremony transpired.
Unfortunately, the very next day the husband's family found out that he had signed a divorce agreement, and (being unaware of the cause of action) they placed immense pressure upon him to file a motion asking to void the agreement -- and the get. His motion argued that both the agreement and the get were procured under duress - including charges that the Legal Aid advocate had plied him with drugs! Incredibly, the rabbinical court judge who heard the motion granted the husband's motion to stay the execution of the agreement and to refrain from giving F her divorce decree. Without the get, F cannot remarry or bear children; without the civil divorce decree, F is not entitled to any government benefits or child support.
We appealed the stay on several grounds:
· A get is absolute and cannot be challenged
We have also recently filed to remove one of the appellate judges from the case. It turns out he is a friend of the husband's family and has met with them outside of the courtroom while the case was being heard.
The question of whether or not a husband can question the validity of the get after it is given, and under what circumstances, is important. (It is noteworthy that tradition does not support attempts to invalidate gittin). Also important is the question of whether or not a rabbinical court can withhold a civil divorce certificate.
I believe we can win this case as a matter of appellate law. If not, we will return to argue the facts in the lower court (i.e. that our advocate did not in fact ply the husband with drugs, etc.).
File 2: Can the Rabbinical Courts force the execution of a divorce agreement that was signed and specifically subject to the delivery of the get?
The Legal Aid Center is representing S, a woman who has been living apart form her husband for 4 years and whose divorce suit has been heard in the rabbinical courts since 1982 (!!!). Finally, about a year ago, after much anguish and extortion, S's husband agreed to give her a get. The deal: He pays 800 NIS (approximately $160) a month in child support for their three under-age children (the couple has six children, three of whom are no longer minors), and the marital home, worth $160,000, gets sold, with the proceeds evenly split. S made it clear that she does not want to leave the home unless she gets the get; the rabbinical court wrote up the agreement, authorized it and held that it becomes effective upon delivery of the get.
But S's husband then decided that he did not want to give S the get until he was certain that his wife would sell the house. No problem -- the court ordered the house sold, appointed a receiver for that purpose, and set the case down for the delivery of the get. Twice. Each time, S's husband reneged on delivery of the get.
The first time, he refused to give S the get until he saw the money in his own hands. The court chastised him, but agreed to delay the get ceremony until the money is actually transferred, and pressured S to agree that her husband should get his half of the money first. The court then set down another date for the get ceremony. Again S's husband changed his mind. His new demand of the court is to direct the receiver to pay his debts from S's half of the money. And -- he wants his money immediately. At this point, the court lost patience with S's husband, understanding his demands to have no basis. Still, they cannot leave him empty handed, or S will never receive her get. So, they order the receiver to pay the husband his half of the money immediately, before the get. In response, the Legal Aid Center moved to stay this decision, and filed an appeal on the grounds that if the husband gets the money he is waiting for from the house, he will no longer have incentive to deliver the get. The lower court refused our motion for a stay, whereupon we immediately run to the High Court to get a stay and permission to file an appeal. They agree. (Whew.)
In our appeal, we argued that the court must interpret the contract as allowing for the sale of the house and the division of money with the get, or shortly thereafter. We insisted that the money be held in an escrow account until the get is delivered or, alternatively, that the court rescind the contract, since S's husband had breached it by twice refusing to give the get.
This case is also very important. One of the more horrible cases that we recently closed involved a woman who lives in a caravan because the court forced her to sell the marital home and accept lowered child support in accordance with a divorce agreement that her husband breached. A legal precedent from the court of appeals could prevent that happening to another woman ever again.