Today’s Daily Mail prominently features a number of super wealthy divorcing couples in the retail sector and I am quoted in the article. During the course of my career I have acted for and against some of these seriously wealthy people who own and run some of the best known brands in the country, so what follows is based on my personal experience.
I had a long conversation with the journalist about the complex approach of the courts to the division of their wealth and we discussed the principles involved – for example, the “stellar contributions” of billionaire Sir Chris Hohn and financier Sir Martin Sorrell, which reduced their payments on divorce to between 33 and 40 per cent.
Then there are the cases such as the Asos divorce, where pre-acquired wealth played its part in reducing the payout, together with the value placed on what lawyers call the “passive economic growth” of such wealth – that is to say, where the value of shares or property simply increases during the marriage. How should that additional wealth be divided between the parties?
The journalist and I agreed that the application of the law to the sometimes untidy facts of such cases is a fascinating topic. Yet, when I put down the phone, I was left wondering at just how far we have gone in our approach to the financial nitty-gritty of divorce.
Is it right that the personal financial details of these couples should be set out for all the world and his dog to read in judgements that are no longer anonymised? What business of ours is it how much they are worth, how they’ve invested their money, how they’ve spent it and on whom and how much they’re going to get going forward ?
Is that right? Does the public have a genuine right to know all about a couple’s finances?
Personally, I think not. My clients have not appeared in the press. Usually that has been because the couple settled out of court, so there was no embarrassing judgement at the end of the day. Their cases have also often been run in the provinces, away from prying eyes in central London. The media have been blissfully unaware of a divorce in the family at all.
As much as I deplore the publication of such judgements, equally I deplore a growing practice amongst some couples of discussing their own case in the media. Announcing the issue of proceedings. Keeping the press informed of developments.
I think it’s all completely wrong.
These are dangerous times. There are nasty people out there who just don’t need to know how wealthy a couple is or where they live (and the latter can be easy to work out if you’re that way inclined).
My view is – yes, by all means publish a heavily anonymised judgement so we can read and understand the law. But that’s it. End of. Full stop.
And of course, that would go just as much for people who enjoy the glare of publicity and who would otherwise happily discuss their cases and soon-to-be-ex spouses in the media.
Perhaps that day will never come, not least because the Judiciary themselves are divided on this issue. Some, like Mr Justice Holman, believe divorce cases should proceed by default in open court, unless there is a good reason for this not to happen. Meanwhile Mr Justice Mostyn is the most prominent of those judges who, like myself, believe that divorce is an essentially private affair.
In the meantime, what can divorcing couples do to try and dodge the limelight? Arbitration is one possible route and it offers some solid advantages: a privacy, legal force and a relatively speedy outcome. Arguably it also presents a more civilised approach to the end of a marriage than slugging it out before a judge who is left with little option but to disclose the minutiae of a couple’s private lives because their polarised positions have failed to result in settlement.
Read the Daily Mail article here.