The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act allowed divorce through the law courts, instead of the slow and expensive business of a Private Act of Parliament. Under the terms of the act, the husband had only to prove his wife's adultery, but the wife had to prove her husband had committed not just adultery but also incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion.
Caroline Norton had been very active in the campaign for this act. Four of the causes were based on her own unhappy experiences as a married woman. (Clause 21) A wife deserted by her husband might be protected if the possession of her earnings from any claim of her husband upon them. (Clause 24) The courts were able to direct payment of separate maintenance to a wife or to her trustee. (Clause 25) A wife was able to inherit and bequeath property like a single woman. (Clause 26) A wife separated from her husband was given the power of contract and suing, and being sued, in any civil proceeding.