A piece in yesterday’s Times by Frances Gibb, Legal Editor:
Reforms that would put an end to most “meal ticket for life” maintenance awards in divorce cases will be put before parliament in the new year.
A private member’s bill promoted by Baroness Deech, the leading law academic and crossbench peer, aims to end the “disproportionate” awards to some former spouses in divorce and make prenuptial contracts binding, a reform backed by the Law Commission and many top legal names.
Recent cases involving wives who pursued their former husbands for maintenance years after separation have heightened public concern. “Our existing law urgently needs reform because of changes in society and families; judicial inconsistencies and excess of judicial discretion,” Lady Deech said.
The call comes as Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia, the leading divorce solicitor, said that guidance was needed to bring consistency to maintenance awards to prevent a “postcode lottery”.
The Times Family Matters campaign is pushing for new laws to modernise and protect marriage legislation and family stability.
Lady Deech, the former chairwoman of the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority, said: “It is no credit to English law and damaging to the position of all women to find that the wives of foreign oligarchs are having their “needs” [such as £2 million a year for travel, £100,000 for handbags], taken seriously by judges, while women who are supporting themselves in their jobs at the time of divorce are treated less generously than those who have given up work.” Maintenance, she said, should be limited to five years unless there was exceptional hardship. “As long as we expect women to have dignity and go out to work, then it is not right to say: this man must keep you for the rest of your life.”
It was no surprise that London had become the divorce capital of the world, Lady Deech said, when a Russian wife could walk off with £500 million for “what, exactly?” The former wife of a Russian oil and gas trader received £453 million in May in a settlement agreed by a UK court. In another case, the former Pirelli calendar model Christina Estrada, the ex-wife of a Saudi billionaire, demanded £250 million to fund new homes, clothes, cars and art. She won £75 million.
England, she added, was “the outlier” and that other countries had different laws: in Scotland only the “fruits of the marriage” are divided on divorce. “It is the same in the most of Europe and America. We have the worst of all possible worlds,” she said.
Although the Supreme Court had ruled that prenuptial agreements were persuasive, she said, there were so many conditions involved that it had opened up a new rich field of litigation adding that some lawyers opposed reform because they themselves “are making substantial sums of money from the present system”.
Judges in England and Wales have wide discretion over maintenance awards. A survey of family lawyers by the law firm Pannone found that whereas in London, and also big cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds, wives would receive maintenance, in rural areas they were expected to stand on their own two feet.
Warning of a “postcode lottery”, Lady Shackleton said: “Some courts award maintenance for life, while on exactly the same circumstances others regarded a cut-off as appropriate.”
Resolution, the association of family lawyers and advice workers, found in a separate survey that more than half of lawyers admitted issuing proceedings in a particular location or court because they thought the outcome would be more favourable.
Philip Marshall, QC, chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, said the reforms proposed by Lady Deech were “too prescriptive and could result in real unfairness. ” Instead, he said, the Family Justice Council had issued guidance on assessing financial needs that would be regularly updated.
Five point plan for change
The Times supports the institution of marriage, but a reform of laws in England and Wales is needed to bolster family stability, end financial injustice and remove acrimony from divorce. They include:
● Scrapping fault-based divorce laws, allowing divorce within a year where both sides agree, and two where they do not — as in Scotland
● Ending the outdated and patronising “meal ticket for life” that can result from present laws on splitting assets and awarding maintenance after divorce, except where hardship would be caused
● Giving prenuptial contracts the backing and force of statute. At present they are non-statutory, which leads to further uncertainty and bitterness when marriages fail
● Extending civil partnerships to heterosexuals so that they can have the same security as married couples should they wish. Civil partnerships are offered only to same-sex couples at present
● Creating rights for long-term unmarried couples. This would remove injustices that occur when one partner is left without any right to financial award or maintenance if they break up, possibly after many years of living together [J4MB: These are not ‘injustices’, they are what are understood to be the ‘deal’ among unmarried couples. If legislation in this area is made retrospective – and given feminists will have a strong influence, it will be – expect many women to leave their partners and ruin them financially, driving some of the men to suicide.]
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