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Progress and regression: the Wallis Simpson divorce

The Wallis Simpson divorce

I’m pretty sure that I’ve said it here before, but you never know where you’re going to end up when you write about family law. I would never have imagined, for example, that I would write a post about the Wallis Simpson divorce.

But I am prompted to do so by a story that appeared in The Guardian just before Christmas. It is a story that paradoxically tells us both how far we have come and how far we have slipped backwards.

Progress on divorce

As The Guardian mentions in the story, it is entirely appropriate that we should consider a historic divorce case at this moment, just as we are finally going to get a system of no-fault divorce. And the Wallis Simpson divorce demonstrates just how awful divorce used to be, and how much progress we have made, or at least will make when no-fault divorce, at last, becomes a reality.

It is a sordid story of contrivance, breach of privacy and legal farce. And all caused by the absurdities of an archaic divorce system, not that far removed from what we are still saddled with today.

As we all know, Wallis Simpson wished to marry Edward VIII. But there was, of course, a problem: she was still married to her second husband, Ernest Simpson.

She needed to get a divorce, and in order to obtain it she had to prove that her husband had committed adultery, that then being the only ground upon which a divorce could be obtained in this country.

Now, these days in the vast majority of adultery divorces the act of adultery is simply admitted by the ‘guilty’ party. There is normally no need to provide the court with evidence of the adultery. But back then things were different, and the parties had to go through a charade to ‘prove’ that adultery had in fact taken place, often involving the ‘guilty’ party having a ‘liaison’ (real or enacted) with a third party at a hotel. Evidence of the liaison would be duly collected by an enquiry agent instructed by the solicitors for the ‘innocent’ party.

The story in The Guardian emanates from a 47-page private memoir shown to the paper, detailing what happened next. The memoir was written by Robert Egerton, who was at the time I believe an articled clerk (i.e. trainee) with the firm of solicitors acting for Mrs Simpson. Egerton explains that in 1936 his firm sent him to the Hotel de Paris in Bray, Berkshire, where the liaison between Mr Simpson and another woman was due to take place.

But all did not go to plan. The hotel, worried about the scandal, refused to cooperate with the enquiry agent or to disclose its register of guests staying at the hotel. Only after it became obvious that publicity could not be avoided did the hotel allow access to its staff. Sure enough, the hotel porter, a waiter and the floor waiter “who had served breakfast in bed to Mr Simpson and a woman who was not Mrs Simpson” came forward to provide the necessary evidence, all three paying for what they had done by being sacked by the hotel.

And so Mrs Simpson duly obtained her divorce, although Egerton explains that the judge was not impressed by her: “He had not liked what he saw of Mrs Simpson in the box, particularly, no doubt, her claim that the chance discovery of her husband’s infidelity had driven her to write [a] legally concocted letter expelling him from their home.”

Thankfully, we have moved on somewhat since 1936, and soon the awful concept of adultery will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Regression on legal aid

So much for progress, what of regression? Well, Egerton did not spend all of his career as a solicitor acting for wealthy clients. Quite the contrary. He spent some time working as a “poor man’s lawyer”, witnessing first-hand the difficulties faced by those who had to go to law without the benefit of a lawyer. He used those experiences to campaign for the introduction of legal aid and became a major figure behind the introduction a system of legal aid in 1949.

Sadly, that vision of equal access to law for all has also been consigned to history’s dustbin. In 2013 the Government saw fit to step back towards a time when only those who can afford it are properly legally represented. In the field of family law, this meant that almost all private law matters, including children disputes and disputes over finances on divorce, were removed from the legal aid scheme.

What Robert Egerton, who died in 2000, would make of all this, one can only guess.

You can find the article in The Guardian here.

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John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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