“Two Countries Separated by the Same Language”: Comparing Marriage under U.S. Law and English Common Law

The Law From Here

By Divya Maharaj

Welcome to another installment of The Law From Here, our globe-trotting series that gives you a chance to get to know GSU Law’s LLM students. Like many of our LLM students, Divya Maharaj has considerable experience researching the law of another country–here, the Caribbean twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Divya has an LLB from the University of London and an LLM from Staffordshire University, in addition to being a recent graduate of GSU’s LLM program. In today’s very special The Law From Here, she takes a look at some of the different ways that English Common Law and U.S. Way treat marriage.

George Bernard Shaw said, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language”. Before I immigrated to the US, I had very little idea about how extensive this “separation” is because it goes much beyond language and extends even to the sphere of the legal systems which originate from the same English Common Law (ECL). As a practitioner and student of law, the more comparative research I conducted in this sphere, the more I realized the extent of this “separation”. However, before going any further, here is a disclaimer. Although Trinidad and Tobago is my country of origin, the legal system there is almost entirely based on ECL, and in addition, I am an English-educated attorney and hence when it comes to law, England is my home country and hence the prologue.

Divya Maharaj

Amongst the many major differences, one that I stumbled upon recently was in the domain of Family Law–more precisely in the unpleasant arena of Divorce Law. Divorce in England and Wales, and by extension in Trinidad and Tobago as well, is guided by the Matrimonial Causes Act (MCA) 1973 pt 1, s 1(2), wherein, divorce can only be considered when a marriage has irretrievably broken, which again is determined if one or more of the following facts are satisfied: (1) respondent committed adultery; (2) respondent’s behavior made living together impossible; (3) respondent deserted for at least a continuous two year period; (4) the parties had at least two years of continuous separation if they have consented to a decree of separation; or (5) the parties had at least five years of continuous separation if there was no decree of separation. Even with the last two clauses, the law there is mostly a fault-based one and the divorce petition statistics also show that a vast majority of the petitioners rely upon fault as the ground for divorce, adultery and unreasonable behavior being the most popular ones.

However, from my research I have come to realize that there are quite a number of important differences between the laws of the US versus that of England and Wales. Some of the major ones are as follows. First, due the no-fault divorce law revolution of the 1970s, the overall framework in the US has tilted mostly towards no-fault grounds, even though fault grounds still exist. Second, marriage and divorce here is mostly guided by the state laws, therefore a single law is not guiding divorce for the entire country. Third, even though all fifty states now allow no-fault divorce, there are many different flavors of the laws. On the one end of the spectrum are the seventeen states allowing divorce solely on no-fault grounds (e.g. California, Washington, etc.). Case in point is California where, per California Family Code 2310, divorce can be granted on the following two grounds: (1) irreconcilable differences, resulting in marriage breakdown; and (2) permanent legal incapacity to make decisions. On the other end of the spectrum are the thirty-three other states allowing divorce on a mix of fault and no-fault grounds (e.g. Texas, Georgia, Utah, etc.). Case in point is Georgia, where, per Georgia Code § 19-5-3, divorce can be granted on the following grounds: (1) prohibited types of intermarriage; (2) mental incapacity; (3) impotency; (4) force, menace, duress, or fraud in the process of marriage; (5) wife’s pregnancy by someone other than the husband; (6) adultery of either party; (7) willful and continued desertion by any of the parties for one year; (8) conviction of either party for moral turpitude offense, resulting in two or more years of imprisonment; (9) habitual intoxication; (10) cruel treatment; (11) incurable mental illness; and (12) habitual drug addiction; and (13) the marriage being “irretrievably broken” (i.e., the no fault option). Fourth, regarding the no-fault divorce related separation clauses, there are differences between state laws on the duration based on whether the divorce is consent-based or unilateral. In many states, the parties can go for immediate divorce if it is consensual (e.g. Texas, Florida, etc.). For unilateral ones, the duration of separation varies from state to state as follows, with some of them allowing as short a duration as one month (e.g. Alabama), whereas some requiring as long a duration as two years (e.g. Illinois). Fifth, in a handful of states where fault-based clauses are still important, there are some unusual additional grounds as well. For example, New Hampshire, where joining a religious sect which destroys marriage can be a ground for divorce, or Illinois, where infecting a spouse with venereal disease can be a ground. Sixth, even with the existence of fault-clauses, the general trend in the country has been towards no-fault based divorce. Finally, in a limited number of states like Louisiana and Arizona, there is the concept of “covenant marriage” which does not exist in England. In this arrangement, parties opting for it are required to go for premarital education classes and promise to seek marital counseling in case of later problems to preserve the marriage, with no-faults no-fault divorce not available as an option.

After researching the legal frameworks, I also proceeded towards gauging the relative experiences with the highly fault tilted, versus the highly no-fault tilted divorce law frameworks in these two jurisdictions; note that when it comes to the US, by “jurisdiction” I mean the overall US. It was quite interesting to see the prevalence of “grass in greener on the other side” sentiment on both sides.

On the English side of the fence, a comprehensive and widely accepted study by Nuffield Foundation highlighted the following major challenges because of high reliance upon fault-based divorces. First, fault-based framework’s original objective of preserving the institution of marriage by making divorces difficult, has not really been satisfied. Second, a great degree of dishonesty has crept into the process because, irrespective of the reality, the parties have found that they can short circuit the process by using fault, thus avoiding the long separation period requirements and trigger faster divorces. Third, reliance upon fault has given rise to higher levels of acrimony in the divorce process, thus greatly increasing the suffering of children. Fourth, the fault-based proceedings are highly unjust towards the respondent in a high percentage of cases because of truth being taken out of context. Finally, reliance upon fault has, in many cases, resulted in protracted legal battles and has severely impacted the quality of life. A glaring example is the highly debated and publicized case of Owens v. Owens, where although it was found that the marriage has irretrievably broken after 37 years, the judge refused to grant a divorce on the ground: that the petitioner’s fault-based allegations (e.g. intolerable behavior) were just minor altercations which can be expected in a marriage; and that the respondent was also opposing the divorce. The petitioner’s further appeal was unanimously dismissed by the Supreme Court even though the judge expressed his “uneasiness”. The petitioner is still waiting before she can apply for a divorce on the basis of separation grounds, while living quite unhappily in a marriage which does not work anymore. As a result of all these, a strong push has come from various quarters of the society that the law, which has not seen any change since 1973, needs to be reformed towards a no-fault based one so that it is more in alignment with the laws in other developed western nations like the US.

However, on the US side of the fence, because of many decades of experience with the no-fault framework, some major challenges have been observed as well. First, no-fault has caused a substantial rise in divorce rates in the US, probably arising mostly from unilateral divorces. In fact, the US has one the highest divorce rates in the world. Second, in the absence of the conflicts arising from the need to prove fault, fights over custody and support have taken its place, and these have become more prevalent with the similar, if not higher, level of acrimony and humiliation in the process. Third, dishonesty in the process has shifted from falsification in order to prove fault, to falsification in order to get a favorable bargain on the collateral aspect of the divorce process, which is evidenced by a rise in the level of one of the party falsely accusing the other party of child sexual abuse in order to get the children’s custody. Finally, due to the shorter wait period for non-consensual divorces, the party intending to divorce may just wait and simply leave at the end of the waiting period, thereby possibly putting the other spouse who did not want to divorce at a considerable disadvantage, and thus having a higher bargaining power. As a result of these factors, a sentiment opposite to the other side of the Atlantic is prevalent in some sections of the US society. Although there has not been much success, here the detractors of the no-fault framework have been trying to bring fault into the mainstream again. One effect of this push can be evidenced in the introduction of “covenant marriage” in a handful of states as mentioned earlier.

In conclusion, I can only say that this ongoing research has broadened my knowledge horizon and made me realize that I definitely need to undertake more of these exploratory comparative research initiatives. All of the sudden, I see Hamlet appearing in front of my sleepy eyes and say: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So, yes, my research will continue!

The Law From Here: What is Legal Research like in Venezuela?

by Mariana Griffiths, LLM Candidate

Welcome to another installment of The Law From Here, our globe-trotting series that gives you a chance to get to know GSU Law’s LLM students. Like many of our LLM students, Mariana Griffiths has considerable experience researching the law of another country–here, Venezuela. In Venezuela, Mariana worked as a legal coordinator. Currently, she works as corporate legal supervisor at UPS while she finishes up her LLM degree at GSU. In today’s The Law From Here, she offers her insights into legal research in the Venezuelan legal system, and how it compares (so far) to researching the law in the United States.

I received my law degree in Caracas, Venezuela at the Universidad Metropolitana or Metropolitan University at the age of 23 years old after finishing high school. In Venezuela it is not required: (1) to pursue an undergraduate degree before applying and start law school; (2) take a bar to practice law. As soon as you receive your law degree in Venezuela, you are licensed to practice nationwide if you register yourself with the Institute of Lawyers and obtain the registration number (which is equivalent to a bar number). However, there is no such requirement of passing the bar in the state where the attorney intends to practice law.

Mariana Griffiths

Venezuela’s legal system is governed by civil law, which is a codified system, meaning that the law is written and organized in codes for each area of the law. Venezuela is a centralized federalism in reality, but constitutionally it is a “Democratic and Social State of Law and Justice which holds as superior values of its legal order an actions those of life, liberty, justice equality solidarity, democracy, social responsibility and, in general the preeminence of human rights, ethics and political pluralism,” Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela [VE][Constitution]Feb. 19, 2009, Title I, art. 2

The U.S. and Venezuelan flags.

Even though case law is not usually considered a fundamental source of law in Venezuela’s legal system, judicial decisions have become more important in many areas. In particular, there are important decisions regarding public matters such as use of public land, eminent domain (called ‘expropriations’), and infrastructure. The most important cases are the ones decided by the Supreme Court of Justice, which is Venezuela’s equivalent of the Supreme Court of the United States, although there are quite a few differences in composition and operation. The Supreme Court of Justice’s decisions are more likely to be published and create precedents for specific legal issues. However, although that court’s decisions are the most prominent, for case law research, there is no strict rule of hierarchy.

The Constitution in Venezuela is the supreme law of the land, and in the hierarchy of the laws, it is at the same tier as international treaties and agreements. Below, there are the codes and laws enacted by the Legislative Power and the Law Decrees issued by the President, which can be related to any matter, at any time, without any restriction, whether there is a national emergency or not. These decrees often include modifications to current law, which makes practicing law in Venezuela very challenging. It is important to note that in the last twenty years, the numbers of decrees has increased considerably as a way to escape the legislative process. These decrees usually strike down one or more segments of the law in question, as an amendment, which means the attorneys must research different decrees and other sources in order to discern the valid statutory law. Perhaps an analogy can explain it better—it is akin to ‘shepardizing’ case law in the United States.

Before endeavoring to contrast the common law and civil law systems of the U.S. and Venezuela, respectively, it is important to note that both systems have evolved with society’s technological and legal changes. Civil law countries have been relying on case law and using precedent to maintain uniformity in the judicial system, which helps to limit frivolous lawsuits and provides a reference for practicing litigant attorneys. And common law countries use precedent to identify potential areas of the law where statutory law is needed for the same reasons, and for the efficiency of the judicial system.

In Venezuela, like in the United States, there is a  separation of powers. However, this is a similarity with a distinction, since Venezuela’s government has five branches: legislative, executive, judicial, citizen and electoral. This separation of powers of five branches is included in an amendment to the Venezuelan Constitution. In contrast, the United State maintains the classic separation of powers with three branches, characterized by the element of check and balances.

The interaction and relationship between federal and state law is also quite different. In Venezuela, even though each state is autonomous, the codified law apply to all the states. Not all the states even have written constitutions or different laws. States do issue ordinances (at the level of administrative agencies) for local matters such as traffic, business licenses and use of the land, but they do not occupy the same legal space as the federal law. In some ways, this is a simpler system than what we find with the overlapping systems of federal and state law that characterize the United States.

As you might expect, these differences add up, and legal research in Venezuela is pretty different. First, you need to know that, when researching the law in Venezuela, you won’t likely find all of the key primary sources in any one single place, like you do in the U.S. when using Westlaw of Lexis. There is a company called Microjuris that provides some resources for legal research similar to what you might see on those platforms, but it is less complete and less sophisticated. More importantly, Microjuris is not always up-to-date and has an outdated design that, personally, I do not find be user-friendly.

Second, the number of executive decrees which modify the codified law is enormous. Sometimes, in one month, there are more than twenty! That means it is important that means you be up-to-date, which you can ensure by checking the Gazette Official published by the Supreme Court of Justice (the “Tribunal Supremo de Justicia”). Generally, it is a large file; the good news is that it is available online.

Third, because it is a codified law system, legal professionals base their research on the civil codes as primary sources. To support their arguments for a legal memo or for a case in litigation, the use of jurisprudence to supplement the civil codes is critical. There are reputable and well-known authors for each subject, often former judges or academic teacher.

These differences in their countries’ legal systems have a big impact on the way that attorneys research the law in Venezuela and the United States. Although case law is less prominent in Venezuelan law, the added wrinkle of ensuring your research of decrees is up-to-date adds to the challenge of researching Venezuelan, as does the unavailability of a comprehensive or user-friendly service for doing legal research online.

The Law From Here⁠— Legal Research in the U.S. and Brazil

by Alceu Mauricio Junior[i]

Welcome to the first installment of The Law From Here, our globe-trotting new series that gives you a chance to get to know GSU Law’s LLM students. Like many of our LLM students, Alceu Mauricio Junior has a distinctive background that features ample experience practicing law in another country–here, Brazil. However, even amongst this rarified group, Mauricio stands out because he is an experienced judge with several postgraduate degrees. In today’s The Law From Here, he offers his insights into legal research in the Brazilian system, and how it compares to the United States.

Having worked as a judge in Brazil for more than twenty years, I enrolled in the LL.M. Program at Georgia State University (GSU) in 2021. I thought the GSU LL.M. Program would be interesting not only because it opens a door to apply for the Bar Exam in some U.S. jurisdictions, but also because it would widen my perspective on how to view, study, and apply the law, either here in the U.S. or in Brazil.

Alceu Mauricio Junior

While studying the law in a common law country and in a different language, it is almost impossible not to set the mind in a mode of comparison. The whole learning process is triggered by focusing on what is similar and different, and how I would express a legal concept in English versus Portuguese (my native language). My goal in this post is sharing my comparative perspective on legal research, presenting a picture of what Brazilian and U.S. lawyers could expect while researching the law in a country with a different legal tradition

Contextualizing the Brazilian Legal System

Lawyers, being pragmatic professionals, naturally want to draft persuasive arguments and accurately predict outcomes in legal disputes. To do so, they need to find and select the most important authorities, in other words, the authorities that are most likely to guide judges’ and government officials’ decisions. As Brazil and the United States are on different sides of the civil law/common law spectrum, one could expect significant differences in how practitioners research the law in those countries.

Let me start by contextualizing Brazil and its legal system. Brazil has the third-largest economy in the Americas, following The United States and Canada. It has a population of more than 200 million people and has the fifth-largest territory globally. A former colony of Portugal with Portuguese as its official language, Brazil has been “a melting pot for a wide range of cultures.” Brazil is a federative republic, with a federal government, 26 states, and the Federal District. It has a presidential system and a bicameral federal legislative like the United States.

The Brazilian legal system follows the civil law tradition, while also adopting some common law doctrines. Brazil has a written Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land. The Constitution establishes separation of powers, federalism, and fundamental rights. It addresses several fields of law and has an extensive Bill of Rights. Though Brazil is a federation of relatively autonomous states, as in the United States, Brazilian law is centralized at the federal level. Congress has the exclusive power to legislate about contracts, family, crime, torts, trade, corporations, energy, and many other topics. Constitutional law and statutory law are the basis of the Brazilian legal system.

Case law plays a crucial role in legal reasoning and analysis in Brazil, and recent developments have adopted the stare decisis doctrine for some judicial decisions. However, even though precedent in Brazil may consolidate interpretations of the law, they do not create law, as courts must base their decisions on constitutional or statutory law. Nonetheless, courts have the power of judicial review and may invalidate unconstitutional statutes. Most case law has only persuasive authority, but judges follow decisions from higher courts as a common practice.

Brazil has federal and state courts and specialized independent court systems, such as labor, electoral, and military courts. At the top of the judicial system, the Federal Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal or STF) can hear appeals on constitutional matters, and has original jurisdiction over “direct actions,” challenging the constitutionality of statutes. There is also the Higher Court of Justice (Superior Tribunal de Justiça or STJ), which hears final appeals on the interpretation of federal statutory law.

Facade of the Federal Supreme Court. Photo: Dorivan Marinho/SCO/STF

Comparing Legal Research in Brazil and the U.S.

In some respects, researching the law in Brazil and the U.S is similar. When facing a new topic, lawyers first look at secondary sources and then continuously narrow their research looking at applicable codified law and case law. However, two main differences set apart legal research in the U.S. and Brazil: the use of electronic research tools and the relative weight of primary and secondary authority in legal reasoning.

A. Research Tools

In Brazil, practitioners do not have access to comprehensive legal research products such as Lexis+ or Westlaw Edge. Some paid legal research services offer access to databases of primary and secondary authorities, newsletters, and alerts on new statutory or case law. Examples of those services are Plataforma Forum and Revista dos Tribunais Online. As a judge in federal court, I have access to CAJU, a service provided by the Federal Justice Council with subscription to most of Brazilian legal databases of secondary authority, but like many other practitioners, I would mostly research secondary authority in treatises, which are the basis of legal education in Brazil.

In the U.S., after researching a treatises, I would use Lexis or Westlaw to access statutory and case law. In Brazil, I would access the Legislation Portal at the President’s Office website. At this portal, one can research the Constitution, the various codes, federal statutory law, and regulations. Unlike the United States, Brazil does not have a single code encompassing all federal statutory law. Brazil has eighteen different codes, one for each area of law, and thousands of non-codified statutes. Brazilian students devote a reasonable time in law school learning about the different codes and statutes that may apply in a specific area of law. After graduation, a good lawyer will follow the Legislation Portal’s daily newsletter. The Legislation Portal does not generally provide cross-references between statutes. The statutes are organized chronologically and not by area of law, as in the U.S Code. On the other hand, a lawyer can search the Portal using keywords. The Portal displays the legislation on pages searchable on the internet. All legislation on the Portal is up to date, and every document has references to modifying statutes or amendments.

After collecting information on the secondary sources and narrowing the applicable statutory law, a practitioner’s next step is usually researching case law. Once again, this step would be much simpler in the U.S. using Lexis or Westlaw. In Brazil, lawyers usually research case law using court’s individual websites, which offer handy and reliable free tools for researching case law, but not in a comprehensive, unified portal. In my practice, I would generally start at the Supreme Federal Court’s and Higher Court of Justice’s webpages for two primary reasons. First, in Brazil, federal and constitutional laws are often controlling. The Brazilian Constitution is extensive and has provisions related to several fields of law. So, even topics such as patent law or family law often come before the Supreme Court. Second, the higher courts in Brazil do not have discretionary certiorari procedures. Thus, the Brazilian higher courts receive and decide hundreds of cases every year, and there is a considerable chance of finding precedent helping my reasoning.

The courts’ websites offer handy and reliable free tools for researching case law. The Supreme Federal Court (STF), for instance, offers a search engine on which a lawyer can research cases using keywords. A case on that database may have specific references to secondary authority, codified law, and precedents cited in the opinion. However, different than Lexis or Westlaw, there is no yellow or red flags to show a case may have been overruled or received a negative treatment in a subsequent decision.

B. Legal Culture and the Weight of Authority

The second structural difference researching the law in the U.S. and Brazil is the relative weight of primary and secondary authority in legal reasoning. In the U.S., the framework of stare decisis lays a considerable weight on binding precedent. Precedent is also essential in Brazil, and some judicial decisions are binding authority. However, there is no general principle of stare decisis, and judicial decisions are binding only in particular instances, mostly related to Federal Supreme Court’s decisions on constitutional matters. Most of precedent in Brazil has mere persuasive value. Precedent from the Supreme Federal Court or the Higher Court of Justice has a powerful, persuasive force. A decision from an appellate court in the trial court’s jurisdiction also has a relevant persuasive power, but it is not necessarily more persuasive than a decision from a different appellate court. For instance, when I draft a decision in my court, I will research case law from the appellate court in my circuit. However, if the only on-point decision from my circuit is an old one, I could as well use a newer decision from a different circuit that better reflects the current law.

Higher Court of Justice (STJ) –Plenary of the 1st Section – Judgment Session. Photo: Sandra Fado, CC BY-ND

In addition, secondary sources may play a much more significant role in legal reasoning in Brazil than they would in the U.S. Treatises and law review articles do not have the same force as on-point precedent. However, they may have a similar if not greater persuasive appeal than judicial decisions that do not cover facts resembling the disputed case. This trend comes from the Brazilian legal culture and its civil law origin. While courts in the U.S. put a distinct value on legal certainty (which lays the foundation for the stare decisis doctrine), Brazilian courts tend to see justice in individual cases as a higher value. In practical terms, Brazilian courts are more willing to find distinguishing factors from precedent if they think justice would be better served, even at the expense of law’s predictability. Thus, when researching the law in Brazil, secondary sources play a role that goes beyond helping a lawyer find a roadmap for statutory and case law.

Final Remarks

My experience researching the law in the U.S. is still ripening, so drawing conclusions would be premature at this point. This post’s goal was to give lawyers from Brazil and the U.S. an idea of what they could expect while researching the law in a country with a different legal tradition. Legal research’s purpose does not change when we cross borders. Lawyers and courts need to find authoritative sources to support their arguments and assessments. However, how lawyers and courts research the law may vary from country to country. I noticed two main differences between researching the law in Brazil and the U.S. First, while legal researching in the U.S. predominantly relies on comprehensive paid research tools, in Brazil, research tools mainly used are free, official, non-integrated, online resources. Second, while stare decisis is a core, general principle of U.S. law, giving precedent the spotlight in legal reasoning and researching, precedent and secondary authorities may have similar weight in Brazil when there is no binding, on-point decision.

A question that remains open is whether those differences are independent. Maybe the comprehensive legal tools one can use in the U.S. only reflect a difference of technology and economic capacities, but maybe they exist primarily because the U.S. legal culture demands a precise analysis of precedent that is not required in Brazil. I would be only guessing trying to answer this question, but if I had to guess, I would put my money on legal culture being the most critical factor shaping differences in legal research.


[i] Alceu Mauricio Junior has been a Federal Judge in Brazil since 2001 and is currently an LL.M. candidate at Georgia State University College of Law. He holds a Ph.D. in constitutional law and has a master’s degree in public law. LinkedIn.