An engagement is a promise to marry another person. Whenever future spouses get engaged they promise each other that they will committing themselves to get married. However no person shall be compelled to enter into marriage because he or she became engaged. A party is free not to contract marriage till the last moment before the affirmation during the wedding ceremony. (Article 2, Promises of Marriage Act).
The minimum for a valid engagement is a private writing expressing the intention of both parties to engage (Article 1233, Civil Code). Therefore it can be carried out between the parties themselves in private. However engagements are traditionally carried out in public and may be formalized during a religious ceremony.
Effects of Engagement
The idea of an engagement is to discourage one person from abandoning the other party (without a just cause) before marriage after years of commitment. The institute of engagement does so by penalising a party who unjustly breaks such a promise of marriage.
A party who unjustly breaks the promise will be required to compensate the injured party for damages and costs suffered. That party will also be required to pay a reasonable sum of money in compensation for the injury suffered (as the Court deems fit). It is therefore important for the Court to establish whose fault it was for the engagement to break.
The Court will first examine whether the reasons for terminating the annulment were just. It does so by examining how the parties behaved during the betrothal (period between engagement and marriage).
A just cause for breaking an engagement
The law does not stipulate what are the just causes for breaking an engaged. However Court cases on the topic can be classified into the following categories:
- Faith in the other party: If after the engagement one party demonstrates to the other that s/he could not be trusted;
- Adultery: is a good ground for terminating an engagement. However an unsubstantiated allegation of adultery may be held a good ground for the engagement to be broken by the party who is accused of adultery;
- Lack of interest: If the party fails to take interest in the marriage, that is a just ground for breaking the engagement. This could happen if the party fails to fix a date for the marriage, especially after a long time.
- Violent Attitude: A violent and inappropriate behaviour by one party is a valid ground to lead the aggrieved person to dissolve a promise which precedes a far more important and permanent bond.
- Serious Illness: A serious illness is a just ground for terminating an engagement. Moreover, as case law demonstrates, even if a party refuses to under certain medical tests when serious illnesses are suspected is a ground for dissolving the marriage
- Intrusion of Third Parties: Intrusion from the relatives (or others) to get married or in the way married or betheroted life should be lived is a ground for terminating the engagement
- Long Absence: Prolonged absence of one partner from Malta justifies the other party in the calling off of marriage.
Consequences following a disengagement
The party who unjustly breaks his or her commitment towards the marriage will be compelled to pay the other party moral damages and material damages.
Material damages are those costs relating to the engagement that are material objects. These include all the wedding gifts in contemplation of marriage (including the engagement ring itself). Such gifts will be kept by the innocent party while the party whose fault it was for the engagement to break the engagement will have to return such gifts and donations. These gifts are somewhat easy to quantify, and Courts often ask the assistance of experts in order to determine a value.
Moral damages are however damages in ‘abstract’, because they are untouchable. These refer to how much sorrow and grief is caused to the innocent party. The law gives a wide discretion to the Court to fix the quantum of moral damages to be paid to the injured party.