By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
AS his office puts the final touches on amendments to the Sexual Offences Act, Attorney General Carl Bethel yesterday made clear proposed marriage controls shopped by the Bahamas Christian Council will not be accepted “quid pro quo”.
Mr Bethel said he met with the council to discuss their recommendations, adding that the final bill – if passed – will criminalise all forms of violence regardless of marital status.
The BCC opted to withhold its position on proposed amendments, which would criminalise marital rape, until it has seen the final bill. However, it was revealed earlier this month there had been a progressive shift in consensus from the body on the need for a legislative approach to abuses that can occur within a marriage.
Along with recommendations on proposed amendments, the group submitted a companion bill called Sanctity of Marriage Bill 2018 that seeks to establish another advisory council to set rules for Bahamian marriages, legislate counselling and effect tax incentives for married couples who live together.
Yesterday, Mr Bethel said he told the BCC the concept of a marital support bill was an “attractive proposition”, but made clear any incentives legislation would have to be non-discriminatory and non-mandatory.
“The provisions for spousal sexual abuse within the bonds of a marriage will now be within the Sexual Offences Act,” he said. “Once passed, if it is passed, that will criminalise all forms of violence against women in any marital context, men and women, the wording is always spouse.
“The Christian Council also suggested some kind of marital support bill. I find that to be a very attractive proposition for the Bahamas; it is something that is done in mature jurisdictions where married couples receive tax breaks that non-married partners do not, and there are thousands ways in which you can help without in any way actually discriminating against people who cohabit.”
Mr Bethel underscored the majority of relations in the Bahamas were not within the bond of marriage, but he noted there were positive and nondiscriminatory ways to provide incentives or support.
“A number of states do it,” Mr Bethel continued, “even in Britain just to support the institution of marriage, we’re gonna look at precedents from Britain, US, and Canada. It is not a quid pro quo, it is not intended to be a softener or sweetener. I think the church was moved in thinking about capturing violence in marriage, and that it shouldn’t only be that but also how can we positively somehow assist in supporting marriage as an institution. On that basis I entertained discussion and I told them I would look at it.
“But do not view it as companion legislation,” he added.
In addition to tax incentives, the proposed Sanctity of Marriage Bill would affect the creation of a marriage guide that will be used by marriage officers to determine the eligibility of engaged couples but would not apply to non-residents.
It also would introduce a “marital duty of care”, an obligation for married couples to treat each other with due regard, care and respect in an understanding manner, demonstrating a commitment to the welfare and meeting the needs of the other party as they would reasonably “wish” to be treated.
An aggrieved spouse under this section can then apply to a magistrate for an order mandating the pair seek marriage and family counseling, pay fees, and reappear to provide evidence of compliance with that order.
Yesterday, Mr Bethel said he did not agree to any provisions of the bill, but instead the broader concept of marital support. He stressed the country’s divorce laws were “decrepit and outdated” as the world had already moved beyond the need to prove a marital offence.
“Don’t look at this stage at the specifics,” he said, “if I can say one thing, if you look at my approach I’ve tried to walk right down the middle to achieve the goal even in terms of looking at things like a Marital Encouragement Act. Something to support or encourage the institution of marriage is one thing, but I’m not gonna have something mandatory that will make it more burdensome for people than it already is.”
He continued: “We already have decrepit and outdated divorce laws. The world has moved beyond the need to prove marital offence, and has accepted that marriage at its essence is a consensual relation based on two simple words, ‘I do.’
“When I do becomes ‘I don’t,’ I don’t know if it (divorce) should be as simple but the concept of having to prove a marital offence is antiquated. It was only until the 1960s that a woman in the Bahamas could even sue for divorce, and the grounds were very limited. The men had all the rights – we have to make things not only equal but equal access to justice.”
Mr Bethel said: “When you have complex laws supported by establishment interests as being disincentives to the breakup of family or marriage, the problem is it can have the effect of chaining people to unacceptable situations just because they don’t have money to pay lawyers.”