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The High Court grants claim for breach of a promise to pay a mahr

By Maria Hook (University of Otago)

Is a claim for the breach of a deferred mahr agreement enforceable in a New Zealand court? This question arose in the context of proceedings between Ms Almarzooqi and Mr Salih, which was the subject of previous posts on this blog. The High Court has now granted Ms Almarzooqi’s claim ([2022] NZHC 1170): parties may indeed be held to a promise to pay a mahr upon divorce.

In a succinct judgment, Simon France J held that the agreement was governed by the law of UAE but that, whatever its proper law, the mahr had become payable.

  • On the proper law point, his Honour considered it particularly relevant that the parties had travelled to UAE to be married there in accordance with Sharia traditions (at [22], [26]). The intended residence in New Zealand was given less weight, partly because the obligation to pay the mahr “is unaffected by the place of residence” and “becomes relevant once the marriage is ended” (at [23]). Finally, despite the universality of the nikah (and the mahr), it was also relevant that UAE law – unlike New Zealand law – was a system reflecting Sharia principles (at [25], cf Amin Rasheed Shipping Corporation v Kuwait Insurance Co [1984] 1 AC 50 (HL) for an interesting parallel).
  • Regardless of whether UAE or New Zealand law was applicable, his Honour held that the mahr had become payable upon divorce ([40] and [45]). The particular ground of divorce was immaterial. In other words, the court was not required to consider whether the plaintiff was in fact entitled to obtain a divorce under Sharia law.

Notably, the defendant did not dispute that the promise to pay the mahr was to be characterised as contractual. He also did not argue that enforcement of such a promise – whether pursuant to foreign law or New Zealand law – would be contrary to public policy in principle. The Court therefore did not consider these questions, noting only that a different characterisation was arguable (referring to this post).

The confined nature of the issues must be borne in mind when assessing the precedential weight of the decision. Yet, despite this caveat, the fact remains that the Court was happy to enforce the promise, on the basis of a contractual approach. For the reasons explored in my previous post, this may well be the most appropriate solution to the problem of the mahr.

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