Frank Arndt, the Head of our International Family Law Unit at Stowe Family Law, recently attended an international family law conference in Malaga, Spain. While he was there, Frank was interviewed by the editor of Sur in English – one of that region’s most popular English language publications – about expat divorce and “forum shopping”. The feature appears in today’s print edition.
SPOUSES WHO GO FORUM SHOPPING FOR DIVORCE
By Liz Parry
If you think your marriage may be on the rocks, think twice about moving to another country, says Frank Arndt
It is well known that two of the most stressful things in life are getting divorced, and moving house.
When the move is to a different country to start a new life in the sun with your partner, though, it seems reasonable to think that at least it is only the stress of moving you are going to face, and divorce is unlikely to be on the cards in the near future. But is this so? According to Frank Arndt, who was in Malaga last week for a meeting of Spanish and British lawyers, all may not be as it seems.
Frank, who works for the Stowe Family Law firm in the UK, specialises in transnational family litigation. Because laws and procedures vary so much from one country to another, some of the more wily would-be litigants, including those who are intent on getting divorced, are going “forum shopping” – filing the case in the jurisdiction most likely to find in their favour and getting a head start on the unsuspecting party. By way of illustration he describes the case of a wealthy man who lured his wife and children to live in South Africa and then divorced her and returned to the UK leaving her stranded thousands of miles away, with children who could not be moved.
Other women have had similar experiences after planning a family move to Spain, where unlike in England, the divorce courts do not insist on “full and frank disclosure” of all the couple’s assets. By the time the second partner in the case gets wind of the impending divorce, it is usually too late: the case will be heard in the jurisdiction where it is first filed. According to Frank, this situation has led in the past to scenes worthy of being filmed. One wife who had moved with her husband to France found out that he was intending to file for divorce in Paris, and immediately flew back to the UK. She rushed to file her own petition in London, but her husband got there first, by ten minutes, and the case was heard in France.
“Cases like these are not isolated,” says Frank. “It is a real problem, and in my opinion both parties should be on an equal footing”. This and other similar issues were being thrashed out by lawyers last week in Malaga, where because of the exceptionally large foreign resident population, there is a high incidence of transnational litigation.
The problem of being unexpectedly confronted with a divorce case in which the unaware party will probably be financially disadvantaged is obviously compounded when there is child custody to be taken into account. Frank describes European family law as “like a dog’s dinner” and tells the sad story of a case he recently undertook on a pro bono basis to help a woman, Carly Jones, who had returned from Germany to the UK for cancer treatment and was having to fight the German courts for her right to her children. Frank represented Carly in Germany, obtaining an order that they should travel to the UK to see their mother. The German social services refused to comply, and then appealed against a decision to enforce the ruling, and tragically, Carly died just before the appeal was due to be heard.
SUR in English asked Frank if the notorious slowness of the law in Spain was a factor to be taken into account, but he thinks that family law in Spain does not share this reputation. Delays in court procedures cause stress everywhere though, he says, and in Germany a proposal has been put forward to compensate people financially if their cases are held up.
Frank has some advice for those who are involved, or who suspect they are going to be involved, in a family law case. “Get legal advice fast”, he says, “and get the right advice, from a lawyer who will consult with lawyers in the other country, not just go with their own national procedures”.
You can find the latest digital edition of Sur in English here.