Having followed it for some thirty-five years I think I can safely say that the flow of the narrative relating to financial settlements on divorce has generally been that the law favours wives. One vocal element of that narrative has, of course, been the ‘meal ticket for life’, whereby the law provides undeserving wives (so-called ‘alimony drones’) with a free income from their hard-done-by former husbands. You don’t need to go very far to come across stories in the popular media lamenting the unfairness of it all.
But in family law as in life generally the maxim of “he who shouts the loudest” rings true. Just because the loudest voices shout out about the unfairness of the law towards husbands does not mean it is true.
And a new briefing paper funded by the Nuffield Foundation suggests that it may not be true. Far from being unfair towards men, the law on financial settlements may fail to compensate for “the enduring, disproportionate economic impact of divorce on women.”
A welcome aspect of the paper is that it purposely tries to look at ‘everyday’ cases involving people of ‘normal’ means, rather than just the high-money cases that dominate the law reports and the news headlines. In fact, the paper suggests that those big money cases may generate a distorted image of what this area of law means for ordinary families. I believe that may be true, and we obviously cannot have the law skewed by being made to fit in solely with the needs of the wealthy, at the expense of everyone else.
The paper was written by Dr Emma Hitchings of the University of Bristol and Joanna Miles of the University of Cambridge. It outlines key findings from their research on financial settlements in divorce cases, drawing on data from a court file survey of about 400 cases in which a financial remedy order was made, interviews with 32 practitioners and focus group discussions with District Judges.
The briefing lists the following key findings from the research:
- That the ‘clean break’ culture is prevalent, with 84% of cases in the court file survey involving a ‘clean break’, i.e. no on-going financial support (maintenance) from one spouse to the other.
- That spousal maintenance orders are not only rare but are also largely confined to cases involving dependent children of the family
- That, by the same token, very few such orders are made in cases without children of the family, of any age
- That there is geographical variation in courts’ use of spousal periodical payments, but this variation may be more a product of local wealth levels and housing costs, than ideological difference
Picking up on the close link between spousal maintenance orders and dependent children, the paper’s authors state that “the greater problem may not be over-generosity to ex-wives, but the enduring, disproportionate economic impact of divorce on women.” This, they say, is clear from a 2016 analysis of data from the British Household Panel Survey, which found that both the impact of divorce and recovery from it was on average considerably worse for wives than for husbands, whose position – measured in terms of ‘equivalised’ household income – by contrast on average improved following divorce.
The paper concludes:
“Rather than being ‘undignified’, or reflective of or reinforcing a ‘victim mentality’, receiving the benefit of orders that acknowledge the economic impact of how a couple have chosen – or have been required by circumstance – to raise their children protects the dignity of the primary carer, more fairly distributed between the parties the full economic impacts, positive and negative, of their marital partnership.”
This research is timely, given the fact that Baroness Deech’s Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill, which aims to put a five-year time limit on spousal maintenance orders unless there is an exceptional hardship, is currently being considered in Parliament.
Obviously, as the authors state:
“Any law reform should also be informed by the best available empirical data. Without such an evidence-base, reform may both fail to achieve its principled objectives and exacerbate existing problems.”
Quite. Hopefully, Parliament will take note.