1 May 2018

‘No-fault divorce will not end the blame game’ – Partner Marcus Dearle published an article in the Times

Marcus Dearle


The Supreme Court case of Tini Owens, which should never have gone to court, underscores the sadness, loneliness and utter pointlessness of a situation in which one spouse obdurately fails to accept that the marriage has broken down. No-fault divorce clearly needs to be introduced, but this alone will not entirely remove blame in family law disputes. Insufficient attention is generally given by family lawyers to developing acrimony-busting strategies to deflect and contain the corrosive and self-destructive atmosphere of blame. These tactics should be deployed as soon as it is clear that a marriage is over. Constructive deterrence — warning about the often unforeseen adverse consequences of antagonism and the risks of damage to relationships with children who are the silent witnesses — is key.

It is not all bad news. Although you never read about them in the newspapers, there are many divorcing couples who are able to dig deep, park any bitter feelings and work out ways of collaborating and reaching agreement on all fronts privately, uncomplainingly and out of court with minimal involvement of lawyers.

It is also necessary to reflect on the worry that is often triggered by society’s insatiable interest in other people’s relationship breakdowns, particularly those with significant wealth. Some of the cases reported in newspapers, for instance the case of Kim Waggott, who was awarded £9.76 million when she split from her husband, William, in 2012 but had her maintenance payments stopped last month at the Court of Appeal, will be of limited, if any, relevance to the average divorcing couple.

The over-simplistic “meal ticket for life” debate echoing in and outside the chamber of the House of Lords will also have alarmed and confused many families. Lord Justice Moylan was careful to acknowledge at the end of his judgment in the Waggott case that “long-term maintenance can be required as part of a fair outcome” and he said that he understood why Mrs Waggott’s counsel suggested that the expression “meal ticket for life” was unfair.

Publicity should be avoided. In February The Times reported that the Supreme Court had denied Arkady Rotenberg, one of Russia’s richest men, permission for further attempts to maintain secrecy in his divorce proceedings after a Court of Appeal ruling in October 2017 “that evidence of a security threat to the Rotenbergs was ‘slender in the extreme’.” Some years ago I acted in a highly publicised divorce case, intensively fought through the Chancery Division of the London High Court and the High Court of Hong Kong where the security threat was real, not slender: there was a kidnap attempt and it is likely that the media attention played a role in drawing the attention of the criminals involved.

The recent publicity in Petra Ecclestone’s divorce from James Stunt was avoidable: could the reporting of the family’s substantial wealth and references in the tabloids to gold bullion have played any part in triggering the burglary of cash, gold and gems worth £90 million from Mr Stunt’s home? What if the children had been at home at the time?

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