I have always thought that disputes between divorcing couples should be heard in the strictest privacy. Dirty linen should never be washed in public. Thankfully, most people do escape the attention of the press – but not everyone is so lucky. We have all read about unknown couples whose cases reach the Court of Appeal or are reported by high court judges in their judgments. Others live – and divorce – in the public eye, and the twists and turns of the proceedings often make for compulsive reading. It is not always clear how these stories get into the press in the first place, but certain news-gathering techniques are currently under scrutiny, and a surfeit of information may be reported through “friends”.
Injunctions are available in this country, if necessary, to put a stop to any reporting. But once a story gets into the media, it is difficult to put an end to it. People are thrust into the public eye when they shouldn’t be there at all, and the stories about them can rumble on and on. But however sensational their circumstances, the parties involved in a divorce are not robots. They have feelings. What harm do scurrilous headlines do to them and their families?
Over the past year I have read a number of stories in the press about the divorce of Mr Justice Mostyn, and I will make no bones about it: I have previously written about my admiration for this judge. I first met him years ago, when he was Nicholas Mostyn, barrister at law. I recall that I took along my client and my assistant solicitor, the latter of whom all but swooned when he congratulated her on the preparation of her “excellent” instructions. I remember smiling at my assistant as she gazed adoringly at him! But it was easy to see why. I thought he was great too, both for his advice and the conduct of the case in court thereafter.
He won my client’s case hands down.
Sir Nicholas Mostyn QC, now a Family Division Judge of the High Court, has certainly hit the heights. He represented Sir Paul McCartney and a host of others before going to the Bench. He retains the same dry, wicked sense of humour, and a brilliant intellect. I don’t always agree with his judgments, but they are always carefully crafted. For students of family law, they are easy to understand. Above all, he is friendly, approachable, and unafraid to speak his mind – telling it exactly how it is.
Why, you may wonder, am I writing about Mr Justice Mostyn in such glowing terms? No, I don’t have a case before him at the moment. I haven’t even spoken to him for several years.
It’s straightforward. I feel that, like everyone else, he has a right to privacy. Since the news of his marriage breakdown became public, he has been pilloried mercilessly in the media. Information that should have stayed private did not. Whenever a story has appeared about him, it has often been accompanied by the same photograph, which must have embarrassed not only Mr Justice Mostyn, but also the new woman in his life.
I am concerned by the implications of this drip feed of newspaper stories for Mr Justice Mostyn. Yet another article appeared at the weekend. I am not going to link to it, but it involves a QC called Charles Howard, who is alleged to have taken umbrage at “disparaging private remarks” made about him by the judge. The press seem to have set a hare running and I think it’s high time it stopped.
Rightly or wrongly, Mr Justice Mostyn has fallen in love with another woman and has divorced. It’s a terrible, human tragedy for everyone concerned. It is a tragedy for his wife, for his children and also for the new woman in his life, who has herself experienced a great deal of personal heartbreak. But let’s not forget, it’s a terrible tragedy for Mr Justice Mostyn too. So why keep singling him out?
Day after day, year after year my clients, often powerful people holding down powerful jobs, describe to me their sheer helplessness in the throes of a relationship they didn’t seek and their despair at the consequences they could not avoid. They describe the resulting havoc for which they acknowledge they will pay in many ways, not just financially, for the rest of their lives.
Even so, the same clients will describe the unexpected happiness at having found the loves of their lives, for whom they are prepared to make such sacrifices. All of this, however, they cope with in private. Their friends may take sides, there may be gossip, but that’s all they have to put up with.
It is all too easy to choose sides, to brand a scapegoat. But equally, none of us can know what is round the corner. Whether you agree or disagree with individuals’ choices, we all have our own lives to live and every one of us has the right to decide how we conduct our private lives. The end of a marriage is not a criminal offence.
The cases of ordinary divorcing couples – which is essentially what Mr Justice Mostyn and Lady Mostyn are, despite the grand titles – do not belong in Sunday newspapers. They are not superstars making billions of dollars from the public. Mr Justice Mostyn is not a famous face or well-known to members of the public, almost all of whom would walk past him without a glance.
Mr Justice Mostyn is, however, one of the most able, perceptive and fairest of all the family Judges that we have in this country.
Surely he is surely entitled to his privacy too?