The Marriage Foundation has launched a manifesto calling on political parties to consider the need to reform divorce law.
The Foundation, which is led by one of the country’s senior family judges, Sir Paul Coleridge, believes current law is outdated and out of step with modern life.
The call for change coincides with two recent high-profile cases that seem to show differing attitudes towards divorce settlements.
The first case involved millionaire racehorse veterinary surgeon Ian Wright and his former wife Tracey. Mr Wright applied to amend the couple’s divorce settlement. He argued that it was unfair that he should have to support her indefinitely when she made no attempt to find work.
The court found in his favour with the judge suggesting that women should find work once their children had grown up and should not expect an easy life at the expense of their former husbands.
The second case involved millionaire Dale Vince and his former wife Kathleen Wyatt. The couple had married in 1981 but separated a few years later after having a son. They didn’t divorce until 1992 and at that time neither of them had any significant wealth.
Mr Vince then went on to become a millionaire after setting up one the country’s most successful green energy companies. In March, the Supreme Court ruled that Ms Wyatt should be allowed to bring a financial claim against Mr Vince even though the couple had divorced more than 20 years ago.
While the cases were not necessarily comparable, they seemed to illustrate that the law encompasses different attitudes to divorce. This has fuelled calls for reform.
Launching the Marriage Foundation manifesto, Sir Paul Coleridge told the Times newspaper: “Having an out-of-date body of family law, especially surrounding divorce, is bad for the stability of relationships because myths then abound.
“Society needs a set of laws surrounding family failure that is easily understandable and accessible, otherwise the pain and damage of separation is made worse and disputes are prolonged.”
Sir Paul points out that the current law relating to divorce comes from the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which was based on research done in the 1950s. Society has changed enormously since then and he believes the law no longer meets the needs of people today.
“The way in which the spoils of marriage are divided up goes to the very root of the social norms/mores, especially women’s rights and role in society. Some societies give wives almost no right to claim, for instance Muslim wives. In Scotland maintenance is limited to three years.
“If a woman finds herself divorced in her mid-50s, should she be forced to go out to try to find work, when she is deskilled and gave up a potentially prosperous career to look after the children? Situations vary drastically and judges views differ markedly with strong views, especially female judges, who themselves have probably worked for their whole adult life. But stay-at-home mothers are to be valued as much, surely?”
Sir Paul believes that it is now up to Parliament to reform divorce law to bring it in line with modern life and attitudes. He says that without statutory guidance, the courts “make it up.” He points out that judges are “drawn from a very narrow section of society — who says they are right in their approach?”
The foundation manifesto calls for divorce law reform, a tax system that supports marriage and a cabinet minister for families.
Please contact us if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of family law.