When the reasons are more complex or less obvious, an inquiry needs to be undertaken. The process begins with the applicant telling the story of their marriage to a representative of the tribunal. For some this will be a healing experience in itself. Based on this initial interview, the applicant will be advised whether there are probable grounds for a declaration that the marriage was invalid.

If the applicant is judged to have a case for invalidity and decides to proceed, he or she will be asked to nominate a number of people – e.g. family, friends, and colleagues – who can confirm the story of the beginnings, course and decline of the relationship.

The applicant’s former spouse is also invited to give his or her perspective on what happened. All these ‘witnesses’ are interviewed privately, and written statements are prepared. There are no public or open court sessions, no crossexaminations or face-to-face meetings between the parties.

Based on these interviews and written statements, a tribunal official prepares a written dossier summarising the case, which is then presented to the tribunal for a decision. Tribunal officials include lay people as well as priests. The tribunal’s task is to discern whether the marriage was valid or not.

Sometimes people are surprised when they hear that a couple whom they thought had been happily married for many years have received an annulment. It may even make them doubt the tribunal process. However, the inner life of a marriage is usually known to very few people and sometimes not even understood by the couple themselves.

The rigour of the tribunal process provides reassurance that its decisions are well founded and reliable. Evidence both for and against the validity of the marriage is always considered. Every case where an annulment is considered appropriate is subject to a review process. As Pope Benedict recently stated, this canonical process is not there to complicate life or to sharpen tensions, but only to serve the truth that is part of the human and Christian journey of each of the faithful (Address to Rota 2006).

In Australia, the tribunal process can take up to 18 months, but is often quicker than this. The process is not usually expensive, but most tribunals ask applicants who are able to do so to contribute to the administrative costs involved.

The total payment asked, which is always much less than the actual cost, can be paid by instalments as the process unfolds. No applicant will be turned away simply because they can’t make the payment; special consideration will always be given.