6th March 1974: Sir Elwyn Jones, the Lord Chancellor. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Posthumous courting

Sometimes love can conquer even the unimpassioned proceedings of the law courts


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Law reports have never been ranked highly as a form of literature. And yet, within the printed volumes of higher casuistry, the careful reader may find stories of the human condition which would otherwise have escaped the written record, slices of the mundane forever etched on paper through the process of the law. 

Predominantly they are about greed and deceit; but even in a place as unpromising as the reports of the old Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division one can occasionally glean a love story.

In October 1970, Mr Justice Bagnall, whose usual diet of cases consisted of ugly disputes involving matrimonial property, had an unusual application before him. A Gertrude Meyer sought a declaration that she had been married, and had always been married to Isaak Meyer, deceased. 

But she had divorced him 31 years previously, having alleged against him desertion, failure to maintain, and refusal of sexual intercourse. And she had not remarried, him or anyone else, since then.

Now she had come before an English divorce court, seeking to set aside their divorce posthumously, whilst not denying that she had sought and received one in the first place. And now two QCs had come to the Royal Courts of Justice to argue over her case, even though she could not have afforded either of them for a single day. Upon these unpromising facts, the truth emerged, in the bloodless yet unforgettable words of Bagnall J.

An early hint of the solution lay in the description of the parties involved. Gertrude and Isaak Meyer were both of German nationality, at least once upon a time. Isaak Meyer was Jewish; Gertrude was not. They had married in Berlin in 1932. The next year, Gertrude gave birth to a daughter and Adolf Hitler became Chancellor.

By 1938, their situation had become intolerable. The husband lost his job after the Jewish school he taught at was shut down, hence his failure to maintain her. The wife, who worked for the German Red Cross, was told to choose between her marriage and her job. 

Intercourse was withheld from her, but because they could not afford another child and the use of contraception was strongly discouraged, so that they slept in separate bedrooms.

Finally, after much discussion, they decided that he should desert her for the time being, after which she should divorce him. It was a decision made out of love. One evening in 1938, Isaak Meyer walked out on her and disappeared into the night with little more than a rucksack. 

The next year, having heard that her husband was safely in England, she went to a lawyer, who advised that her husband being Jewish alone was not sufficient grounds for divorce. 

Legal niceties had to be kept

Legal niceties had to be kept. So, in terrorem, she obtained a divorce on the basis of desertion, failure to maintain, and refusal of sexual intercourse, facts truthfully but incompletely stated. Having thus “return[ed] to the German union of blood” in the Nazi phraseology, she and their daughter were safe.

Ten years and a world war later, Gertrude Meyer and her daughter joined Isaak in England, by which time he was becoming blind after serving in the British army during the war. They resumed spousal relations as far as possible — he lived in a care home and she had to work to provide for the family — but she visited him as much as she could and they stayed together at weekends. 

They did not remarry because “the Nazis have gone, Hitler is dead, why should we?” She was fortified in this view by the Home Office’s decision to naturalise her as her husband’s wife.

During the last years of his life Isaak Meyer was in receipt of a pension from the West German government on account of his persecution. When he died in 1965, Gertrude applied for a widow’s pension, only to be told that the 1939 divorce decree still stood. Eventually, perhaps in embarrassment, the same Berlin court that had granted her sham divorce ruled that she could receive the pension as long as she could produce an English court judgment to the effect that she was married to her husband at the time of his death. 

Sir Elwyn Jones QC, who had been junior counsel at the Nuremberg trials, appeared for her. The Queen’s Proctor, inexplicably, chose to oppose the petition on the grounds that the divorce decree was valid in German law even if it had been pronounced on racial grounds. 

But the judge had no hesitation in rejecting the 1939 decree on account of it having been procured under duress, thus restoring in law a marriage which had never been dissolved in fact. 

The Meyers are no doubt long dead, as is the judge, stricken down at the age of 59. Elwyn Jones became Lord Chancellor in 1974, and he is also long dead. As far as I know, the case, unsentimentally recorded as In re Meyer [1971] P 298, has been cited but once by English courts since then. 

In view of the legal point involved, perhaps this is just as well; but their love story has been recorded until the end of time, in a place as unpromising as the law reports. 

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