I thought that the expression ‘silly season’ referred to the period in high summer when there was so little news about that news outlets had to come up with various ‘silly’ stories to fill their publications. However, it seems from some of the things I read last week that the term can just as well refer to the low-news period between Xmas and New Year. There has been so much silliness during that period, in fact, that I could mention at least half a dozen stories, but I will limit myself here to just three (although the others may get a mention in my future posts).
Let’s start with a headline that appeared in a certain national newspaper that shall remain nameless:
“Middle-class couples are increasingly falling out over who gets the HORSE in bitter divorce battles”.
Oh dear, where to begin with this? Well, I suppose the first question must be: just how many people can afford to own a horse? A quick Google reveals that, according to the National Equestrian Survey 2015, there “are an estimated 446,000 horse-owning households in the country” (by which I think they mean the UK). Google also reveals that there were some 27.1 million households in the UK in 2016. That roughly means that only about one in sixty households owns a horse. If we convert that to one in sixty divorces and factor in that in 90 per cent of cases the parties resolve financial/property matters by agreement, then that means that in only about one in 600 divorces is there an argument over who gets the horse. Of course, the actual figure is much lower, as a large proportion of UK households does not include a married couple. As for my own experience, I can say that in a quarter of a century practising family law I did not once come across a dispute over horse ownership. The courts are not being filled with arguing equestrians. This is simply a non-story, manufactured to fill empty column space.
Moving swiftly on, we come to another favourite of the news-starved media: the celebrity divorce. In this case it was the story of the pronouncement of the decree nisi in the divorce of Louise and Jamie Redknapp. Such pronouncements are mundane commonplaces, yet on this auspicious occasion the media excelled itself for the number of errors and misconceptions that it passed to its eager readers, including the following:
1) That it is somehow unusual or shocking that the pronouncement took only 20 or 25 seconds, depending upon what news source you read. This is, in fact, how it has always been for uncontested divorces, at least since the present divorce procedure came in fifty years ago. All the judge is doing is reading out the names of the cases where the decree nisi is being pronounced. It doesn’t take long to do that.
2) Along similar lines, there was the inevitable reference to the non-existent ‘quickie divorce’, somehow available only to celebrity couples. Sorry, but there is only one divorce procedure, and it is the same for everyone. The only real factor determining how quickly the divorce will proceed is whether it is defended, but thankfully defended divorces are extremely rare.
3) Many media outlets made the mistake of saying, or suggesting, that the pronouncement finalised the divorce. Of course it did not. The divorce will not be finalised until the decree absolute, and Mrs Redknapp cannot apply for that until six weeks have expired since the pronouncement of the decree nisi.
4) A less egregious error on the part of the media was to say that Mrs Redknapp was divorcing Mr Redknapp on the basis of his ‘unreasonable behaviour’, when many a family lawyer will say that that term is inaccurate and is not actually mentioned in section 1 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which sets out the ground for divorce. Now, I like to think that I’m a pedant, but personally I can put up with ‘unreasonable behaviour’, the term that has been used for the last fifty years and that is actually used by the court in its documents. I am therefore prepared to forgive the media this one.
OK, enough of the Redknapp divorce, and on to my final silly season story, which appeared in The Times, and is therefore behind the great paywall of Murdoch, so I haven’t been able to read the whole thing. Still, from what I gather a scheme at Chelmsford county and family court whereby dogs are brought into the court to help calm the nerves of stressed witnesses and litigants is being considered by courts nationwide. It seems like a good idea, although I suppose it does depend upon the breed and nature of the dogs – a rabid Rottweiler is hardly going to be conducive to calming the nerves. What strikes me a silly about this is that we have a system that cares sufficiently about the welfare of litigants and witnesses to provide such a ‘service’, yet at the same time the system doesn’t give a damn about whether said litigants are properly represented in court. Surely, having a good lawyer looking after your interests is going to do far more for frayed nerves than a quick stroke of a placid pooch?
Photo by Karsun Designs via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.