Last week a certain national newspaper ran a piece in its women’s lifestyle section asking: which type of divorcee are you – a Harrods wife or a Tesco wife? The piece took its inspiration from the recent High Court case in which Mrs Justice Roberts awarded former model Christina Estrada a settlement of about £75 million, including a lump sum payment of £53 million from her husband.
The case made the headlines not just because of the size of the award but also because of Ms Estrada’s apparently extravagant claims regarding her financial needs. She had originally sought more than £200 million, reportedly claiming that she needed enough to afford a luxury home in London worth about £60 million, a £4.4 million house in Henley-on-Thames and £495,000 for five cars, three in London and two in the US. She also apparently said that she required £1 million a year for clothes, which included £40,000 for fur coats, £109,000 for haute couture dresses and £21,000 for shoes.
The newspaper piece began by suggesting that there were “gasps of disbelief across the country” when the size of Ms Estrada’s award was announced, although it also suggested, with, surely, a little tongue in cheek, that other ‘high-net-worth wives’ might be appalled that Ms Estrada is expected to subsist on such a paltry amount. The piece went on in the same vein, comparing the expectations of divorcing wives, dependent upon the ‘social strata they occupied’. Needless to say, expectations of those at the top, the so-called ‘Harrods wives’, differed markedly from the expectations of the ‘Tesco wives’ at the bottom.
All of that might be regarded as a bit of fun, but it might also be making a serious point: that we have two separate systems, one for the rich, and one for the rest. After all, surely the very definition of ‘needs’ says that it refers to things that are essential, rather than just desirable? Why should one wife be able to get away with claiming that a thing is essential, when another wife is told that the same thing is only ‘desirable’?
To answer the question we have to go back to the basic law. This is contained in section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. Section 25 sets out the matters to which the court is to have regard in deciding what financial orders to make following a divorce. Amongst those is “the financial needs, obligations and responsibilities which each of the parties to the marriage has or is likely to have in the foreseeable future”. That doesn’t take us a lot further, but section 25 makes it clear that ‘needs’ should be assessed by reference to other factors, including the next matter listed in the section: “the standard of living enjoyed by the family before the breakdown of the marriage”. So, it is quite clear that when the law was laid down Parliament intended that wives should be treated differently, depending upon the standard of living they were used to during the marriage. Indeed, some judges have even suggested that in big money cases ‘needs’ should be ‘generously interpreted’, although other judges prefer to stick with the wording of section 25.
Now, I admit that looked at one way cases like the Estrada one can leave a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth, especially when one considers, for example, that there are many families in this country dependent upon food banks, or that some parents have to skip meals so that their children can eat. However, it is only a matter of degree. Cases like the Estrada one are at the stratospheric end of the scale, where very few divorcing couples reside.
For ordinary mortals, the issue of what constitutes ‘needs’ is much more subtle, and the needs of one wife in one family may not be all that different from the needs of another wife in another, slightly better off, family. Parliament (and, I would suggest, most people) took the view that it was right that standard of living should be a factor to take into account, and all we are seeing with cases like Estrada is the factor taken to its natural conclusion.
Photo by Lorenzo G via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence