Today, 31% of British women are the main financial provider in their family, an impressive rise of 80% in the past 15 years. This is a welcome and clear sign of greater gender equality and something that should be celebrated and encouraged.
However, does this gender equality extend to the family courts in the determination of cases where the wife is the higher wage earner? We asked Sarah Snow, a Partner at our London Victoria office to join us on the blog to share her views on gender equality in the family court.
Divorce legislation in the UK is gender neutral, but it is a different matter when it comes to the court applying it as such.
The legislation is clear that lump sum capital awards and maintenance orders can be made to either party in a divorce, irrespective of gender.
The courts in the UK have a very long history of awarding generous maintenance payments to wives, both in terms of length and quantum. However, in my 10 years practising there appears to be an uphill battle to persuade the courts to award maintenance to a man.
Why is it rare to see the court order a wife to pay maintenance to a husband?
The Court has a wide discretion to make a whole range of orders, however the judges at the business end of the awards are like any other member of society, an individual with a wide range of views, opinions, beliefs and potential bias all moulded by their own upbringing, socio-economic background and experience.
Perhaps this plays a role in the conclusion that women are still to be viewed as the vulnerable party in need of protection, the homemaker and primary carer for the children, who even if earning double that of the husband shouldn’t be expected to shell out a monthly maintenance.
To set aside these subconscious views and beliefs when deciding is impossible. The wide-ranging powers and discretion afforded allow for an individual view and assessment of a case, which inevitably leads to unpredictable outcomes. It is the reason why family lawyers so often advise their clients to try and settle their case and avoid a Final Hearing where the eventual determination can be so uncertain.
All this being said, there has been several high-profile celebrity divorce cases where men have been triumphant in divorce. Guy Ritchie reportedly received a settlement of £50m from ex-wife Madonna, the largest ever settlement for a man.
It can also be said that there has been a general increase in more generous pay-outs to men from their wives in divorce. But these types of “big money” cases rarely impact the more modest run of the mill cases that pass through the family courts year in year out, where courts are often looking at simply dividing assets to ensure parties needs are met.
These cases are not at the forefront of championing gender equality for men. In these smaller cases, it is unlikely that the courts would award maintenance in favour of the husband, even if the wife is earning significantly more, a decision perhaps not so easily made when it is a man who is the higher earner.
Financial independence should be the goal for both men and women following a divorce. Although there has been a long-standing cultural view held by society and the judiciary that women need greater support, considering the inequalities faced by women in the workplace, mothers seeking employment or struggling to break the gender pay divide.
I do believe that the tide is turning, and the courts are steering away from decisions granting the wife a “meal ticket for life” however a further cultural change in attitude is needed if we are to improve gender equality in the family courts.