Marriage is intended to be a partnership of equals. Couples vowing to spend their lives together 'for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health' do so on the understanding that they will share duties and responsibilities.
This is not, however, how marriages generally turn out. Husbands, more often than not the biggest breadwinner, have traditionally deferred taking care of the household and children to wives. But times are changing and as women gain greater equality in the workplace and society, roles are shifting. The contribution of women who look after their families rather than taking paid employment is rightly being given greater recognition. Increasingly, husbands are performing this role while their wives go out to work. In a number of jurisdictions in developed societies, such changes have been reflected in divorce courts when it comes to dividing assets. It is good that Hong Kong has finally caught up with the trend.
The Court of Appeal's decision on Wednesday that possessions must now be split evenly between husbands and wives except in exceptional circumstances is long overdue. Britain's House of Lords made the same ruling eight years ago. Previously, after the welfare of any children had been determined, women were awarded from the combined assets what was considered by the court enough for them to live comfortably on, regardless of the wealth of their husbands. The breadwinner, usually the husband, was given whatever was left over, usually a much greater sum. This is not in accordance with the principle of marriage being an equal partnership.
Hong Kong, like Britain, has the common law system. One of the system's advantages is that courts can, through their rulings, bring about amendments to the law which reflect changes in society. That is what the Court of Appeal has done in this case.
Divorce is costly and most couples are eager to avoid litigation and bitterness. The ruling that assets will normally be split 50/50 takes some of the trauma out of the process. Unlike in the past, society demands that men and women be treated equally, regardless of roles. The appeal court's decision is welcome.