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Kris Aquino's marital woes reawaken divorce debate in the Philippines

Court drama to end the union of the Philippines president's sister with her husband has again brought the law which does not recognise divorce back into the spotlight.

The marriage woes of Kris Aguino,  a television host and sister of the Philippines president Benigno
The marriage woes of Kris Aguino, a television host and sister of the Philippines president Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, are making headlines throughout the country and stirring a debate about creating a divorce law.

MANILA // The marriage break-up of Kris Aquino, a television host, actor and sister of the president, and her basketball-playing husband, James Yap, has taken on all the dimensions of a poorly scripted soap opera. Most days the entertainment pages of the country's newspapers, talk radio and local television are rife with gossip and titbits about the high-profile couple, whose five-year marriage has been fodder for entertainment writers and bloggers. And assuming the separation is heard in an open court, the scribes are salivating over the dirty linen that will be aired - on both sides.

Sunning herself in Florida, Ms Aquino has instructed her lawyers to file for a "nullity" of the marriage, claiming it was "void from the very beginning". At the same time, the case has opened up the decades-old debate in this predominantly Roman Catholic country of 92 million about whether there should be a divorce law. The Philippines and Malta are the only two countries in the world that do not recognise divorce, according to Melencio Sta Maria, a professor at the Ateneo University law school in Manila.

A leading expert on family law, Prof Maria said he doubted whether Ms Aquino will be given any favours by the court because her brother, Benigno, is president. "If it's not contested, it could be over and done with within a year. If it is contested over such issues as property and the like, it could drag on for years. It all depends," he said in an interview. Although some grounds for nullity may not apply to the couple, such as the age requirement or the qualification of the person who married them, Ms Aquino's lawyers are expected to push for psychological incapacity.

According to the Family Code, which was signed into law in 1988 by the late president Corazon Aquino, who happens to be the mother of the president and Kris: "Any psychological incapacity at the time of the marriage celebration, which prevents either the husband or wife from fulfilling the essential marital obligations of marriage, shall also be void even if such incapacity becomes manifest only after the solemnization."

Prof Maria said the problem with the code is that "this is wide open for interpretation by the courts". When the drafting of the Family Code was started in 1985 under Ferdinand Marcos, Corazon Aquino's predecessor, the commissioners seriously considered implementing a divorce law, he said. "But the Church objected, so the commissioners chose to adopt canon law on nullity, which states psychological incapacity to perform essential marriage obligations," he said, adding that "infidelity could be an indicator for psychological breakdown".

Anissia Salvador, another lawyer who handles family court matters, said: "Divorce Philippine-style is not as easy as most people think. You usually end up having to bring in psychologists to evaluate the parties to look for psychological incapacity. That could mean anything from personality disorders to weird behaviour." She said a simplified divorce law in the Philippines would make life simpler for all concerned.

Mr Maria said 80 per cent to 90 per cent of failed marriages in the Philippines are dissolved on the grounds of "psychological incapacity". Annulments have proliferated in the country, he said, but there are no statistics because the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that these cases should be confidential. "So we have no way of knowing, but there is circumstantial evidence to suggest the numbers are going up. Just go to a regional trial court handling family matters and eight out of 10 cases will be for annulments," he said.

"Divorce bills have been sleeping in Congress for years and it is still a highly emotional issue." At 100,000 pesos (Dh7,900), the cost of annulments are out of reach of most Filipinos and the process can take a year or more, depending on whether one of the parties contests the action. Mr Maria said Ms Aquino and Mr Yap could avoid publicity by asking for their case to be heard in private. The local media have been circling like sharks for weeks waiting for Ms Aquino to file her petition.

Although Mr Yap has kept a low profile since his estranged wife announced on television she was leaving him, the local media have been particularly intrigued by his past affairs - especially with a former receptionist at a local Botox clinic for the rich and famous. Ms Aquino is not expected back in Manila until late next week, after her brother's state of the nation address on Monday. She has spent the past two weeks relaxing in Florida to "escape the stress of the break up", her publicist said. @Email:kwilson@thenational.ae