We all know that a good headline sells a story, and headlines about the rich and privileged hanging out their dirty laundry in public are almost bound to make you stop and read. The trouble is when you stop and read between the lines the story is usually a lot less sensational and a lot more pedestrian.
The recent case of Fields v Fields is a case in point. Russian former beauty queen Ekaterina Parfenova Fields’ marriage to US lawyer Richard Fields collapsed after nine years. She demanded a lump sum of £2.6 million along with £500,000 annually to keep her and her children in the style to which they were accustomed in Kensington. Her husband countered with a £2.2 million lump sum offer and £230,000 a year, and dared to suggest as well that she try living in Battersea where it’s cheaper.
To most of us, these are big sums of money, but the wife wasn’t happy with the offer and the legal sparring until they had racked up £1.2 million in legal fees out of a pot of £6 million.
Mr Justice Holman admonished the couple for their “unedifying” dispute and had urged them to sit down and have a serious discussion about a settlement. They were unable to do so however , so the High Court eventually awarded Mrs Fields a reported £1.2 million lump sum and £320,000 per annum, plus £50,000 annually for the children. She got the property in Kensington and he kept the Manhattan apartment.
So who should we feel sorry for – her, him, both or neither? When it comes to spousal maintenance the court’s primary concern is addressing reasonable needs. She obviously thought her needs were greater than the judge did, and he ruled in accordance with his own views. So she didn’t get the level of payment she had sought but at the same time, the judge ruled out the husband’s idea that she should move to Battersea, by saying that the award reflected the fact that there was a limit to how far she could “reasonably be expected to move from the centre” since that is where she had lived in London. Hence the Kensington flat!
Several things strike me about this case. One is that perhaps she would received an award closer to her wishes if the former couple had been able to conduct a sensible discussion about reasonable needs, instead of arguing and frittering away over a fifth of their financial pot on unnecessary legal fees.
The other interesting aspect to this case is the fact that it runs counter to those headlines which regularly proclaim that London is the divorce capital of the world. Here was a judge urging a couple to place compromise and communication before courtroom confrontation.
And there is more to consider here. We have heard a lot recently about how men supposedly get the rough end of the stick in family courts . A firm specialising in male clients recently opened in London to take up cudgels in this cause. But on the other hand, a study recently published by the University of Warwick and University of Readings concluded that men are in reality not discriminated against in the family courts. The study looked at child contact applications and found that men were just as likely to have a contact application approved as women.
You might say that contact applications and divorce settlements are different things, but to my mind they are on the same continuum of family court business. If we can say that men aren’t discriminated against when it comes to contact with their children, it would seem fair to say that they’re probably not discriminated against when it comes to maintenance payouts either. And if that is the case, there is no need for men-only law firms in London.
Yes, these are broad brush strokes on the basis of a single case, but they are food for thought. The concept of ‘reasonable needs’ might not be an easy one to grasp, but people need to remember that the key word here is ‘need’ and not ‘want’. By arguing, Mrs Fields actually finished up getting less than her husband’s original counter-offer. So US lawyer Mr Fields was in fact not all that hard done by and an apartment in Manhattan is a nice thing to keep, especially given that he lives in Miami.
Mr Justice Holman declared that “this is a case which should have been very easy to settle.” I couldn’t agree more. If you find yourself caught up in a divorce or family dispute, always try to talk it out if you can and come to some kind of mutually acceptable agreement. Otherwise, whether you’re the husband or the wife, you might discover that the assets you thought you had have disappeared between one argument and the next, and once you reach that point nobody wins.