Some married couples in Maryland soon will be able to obtain divorces without ever appearing in court, as a result of a controversial new ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

The 4-to-3 decision by the state's highest court applies only in cases in which the divorce is not contested and all issues, including child custody and property division, have been settled. In those cases, the judges said Tuesday, couples may obtain divorce decrees simply by filing documents in court. Under the previous rules, at least one spouse had to appear before a court official in order to obtain a divorce decree.

The rule change was opposed by many judges and lawyers around the state, who argued that divorces are too important to be granted without a court appearance and that fraudulent statements might slip through if appearances were not required.

One legislator also asserted that the change was a "slap in the face" to the General Assembly, which previously had rejected bills that would have set up similar rules.

But Court of Appeals Judge Marvin H. Smith, one of the strongest advocates of the change, said, "In cases where the parties have agreed on everything and the only issue is getting a divorce, I can see no reason under the sun to cause these people to incur the cost of a court examiner or master."

Currently, even when there are no disputes, one spouse must appear before a court offical, called an examiner or a master, to answer questions under oath to show that requirements such as residency and a year-long separation have been met. In Montgomery County, for instance, that appearance costs $75. The master then prepares the divorce decree, which a judge must read and sign for the divorce to be granted.

Under the new procedure, a spouse could file an affidavit containing all the pertinent information and this would be given to the judge, who would then issue the decree. The new rule takes effect on Jan. 1.

Beverly Groner, head of the Governor's Commission on Domestic Relations Law, which opposed the rule change, said she was concerned that in some cases spouses are handed divorce papers and sign, "without any conception of what these papers are." The currently required questioning by the master sometimes will ferret out these situations, she said.

"Marriage is too important to dissolve without any human intervention from the court," Groner said.

Groner also said she believed the new procedure would not serve the purpose the appeals court intended-- the prevention of an unnecessary court expense. Parties would end up paying lawyers to prepare the affidavits, she said.

Smith said he was aware that there "are some saying there will be more work for lawyers under the new system . To that I say poppycock."

Smith said under the current system, an attorney must interview his client before putting him on the stand, and then take the time to travel to court and go before the master with him. Smith said it should take less time after the interview to simply prepare and file an affidavit.