Sharp decline in marriage annulments

224 couples in plea to have union declared null

Michael Kelly and Mags Gargan

The number of Catholic couples seeking an annulment of their marriage from the Church has fallen dramatically in the last ten years.

Latest figures show that 224 Irish couples began the process for a Church annulment in 2012, down almost half from 2003 when 402 couples applied to the Church to have their marriage declared null.

In Catholic tradition, a declaration of nullity, declares a marriage null and void meaning that an annulled marriage is considered to be invalid from the beginning almost as if it had never taken place.

The declining figures – while the numbers of divorced people increases – may indicate that Catholic couples whose marriages break down are less concerned about being free to remarry in the Church.

The number of divorced people in Ireland has more than doubled in recent years – and the figure is rising.


Results from the most recent census in 2011 show that 87,770 people are now legally divorced. That’s up from the 35,059 listed as divorced in the census carried out in 2002.

The highest number of applications for an annulment came in 2004 when 499 couples approached the Church to have their marriage declared invalid. However, there has been a steady decline ever since with applicants falling below 300 in 2009 and just 224 in 2012.

The number of annulments granted in a particular year doesn’t tally with the number of applications for that year since the process often takes several years and cases are held over from previous years. Annulments granted by the Church here peaked in the mid-2000s with a staggering 701 Catholic marriages declared null in 2006 and a further 517 marriages annulled in 2007.

Only a minority of applications move beyond the preliminary stages with about 40pc found to have no prima facie case for nullity. A further third are withdrawn by the applicant.


Fr Eugene O’Hagan, Judicial Vicar for the Armagh Tribunal from 1992-2013 told The Irish Catholic it was impossible to pin down the exact reason for the decline. “One can only speculate, based on experience, but one reason would be the increased secularism. There are those who perhaps no longer practice their faith and find the nullity process irrelevant to their circumstances or disposition or some may find it too harrowing or difficult a process to engage with.

“I do find the process a difficult one and it must be said in defence of the tribunals, their staff approach the matter very sensitively but at all times aware of the rights to parties coming to the tribunals to have a fair hearing,” Fr O’Hagan said.

Fr Michael Byrnes, Judicial Vicar at the Galway Tribunal, said that social attitudes have had an impact, where there is no longer the same social pressure to get a decree of nullity to be free to marry in a church. “The expectation to marry in the family is still quite high, but at the same time where people used to get married in a church for their mam and dad, this generation now hitting their late 20s don’t feel that same pressure."

In about 75%-80% of cases ending with a nullity decree a veto – known as a vetitum – on marriages in the Church is imposed on one or both parties. This is because the Church believes that the defect which caused the nullity is still present, putting the validity of future marriages at risk.

Before an annulment is granted a case must be judged independently by two Canon Law courts first by a regional tribunal and then by the National Appeals Tribunal. Both tribunals start from the presumption that the marriage is valid and the onus is on the applicants to provide convincing evidence that it is not.