The case of former beauty queen Pauline Chai and her (now ex-) husband and boss of Laura Ashley Dr Khoo Kay Peng is back in the news. The long-time reader may recall that their divorce case has been ongoing for some time, and it has now reached the stage of the final financial remedies hearing, which began before Mr Justice Bodey in the High Court last week.
The particular headline that the case has raised is that Ms Chai is arguing that her contribution towards the marriage in terms of looking after the family home and bringing up the children equalled her husband’s contribution, in amassing a fortune that she claims is worth at least £205 million. Accordingly, she believes that she is entitled to a full half share of that fortune.
Now, I’m not going to comment on this particular case, but the argument is, of course a common one. To go back to basics, section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act sets out the matters to which the court must have regard when considering what financial orders to make on divorce, and one of those matters is “the contributions which each of the parties has made or is likely in the foreseeable future to make to the welfare of the family, including any contribution by looking after the home or caring for the family”. It has generally been accepted that this means that in the ‘traditional marriage’ where the husband is the breadwinner and the wife stays at home to look after the home and bring up the children the wife’s ‘contribution’ in doing so equals the husband’s financial contribution.
Now, I have always agreed with this argument. After all, there are more ways to contribute towards a marriage than merely financially, and it is surely quite right that the party who devotes themselves to looking after the home and the children rather than to bringing in money is not disadvantaged. However, there is a bit of an intellectual problem with the argument.
The argument of course requires an acceptance of the equivalence of the two different types of contributions. However, the ‘value’ of the contributions on each side can vary wildly. This can work both ways, but the most obvious case is where, as with Ms Chai and Dr Khoo, the breadwinner has brought in an enormous amount of wealth. To accept that each party’s contribution in such a case is equal requires a suspension of disbelief.
Can the contribution of the ‘homemaker’ in such a case really still equal the contribution of the breadwinner? Surely, with more money available the job of the homemaker is if anything easier, as they can afford to employ help, such as nannies and maids (although I suppose it could be argued that the home is likely to be larger, and therefore require more effort to look after). Accepting that the contribution of the homemaker ‘scales’ with the contribution of the breadwinner entails a bit of intellectual gymnastics.
Of course, if we are to accept that a breadwinner’s financial contribution can exceed that of a homemaker, then that entails putting a cap upon the value of the homemaker’s contribution. Can we really quantify a homemaker’s contribution in this way? It seems a terribly mercenary thing to do, as it is effectively putting a monetary value upon such things as housework and childcare. Yes, I know that you can pay for someone else to do such things, but that is not the same as looking after one’s own home or bringing up one’s own children.
So an absolute rule that says that the contribution of the homemaker can never scale with the contribution of the breadwinner is not acceptable. In the end we are left once more with a system that works more on fairness than on hard and fast rules. Is it fair that the breadwinner should be entitled to more, simply because they brought in more than the average breadwinner? As always, the answer to that question will depend upon the facts of the particular case, and the views of the judge hearing it.
Photo by Keith Laverack via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.