The Bishop of London has claimed that ‘promiscuity, separation and divorce have reached epidemic proportions’ in British society. It is possible that the Rt. Rev Richard Chartres’ controversial comments were fuelled by recent observers who have labelled London the ‘divorce capital of the world’. London, as the capital city of England, has often been seen as the cultural and historical centre of the country, but in recent years is fast becoming the chosen destination for divorcing couples.
What is the basis for London acquiring this moniker? It mainly comes down to the way that the family legal system in England and Wales differs from many other countries. Divorce in the United Kingdom is much more favoured towards equal division of assets – this means that the financially ‘weaker’ spouse in a couple is more likely to achieve a more generous award than they might do if the couple divorces in another country.
This reputation of a lenient family legal system in England and Wales is, however, only a fairly recent one. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that ‘ordinary’ people were allowed to divorce – previous to the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act divorces were generally only open to men and could only be granted by an Act of Parliament. Women also continued to find it more difficult to initiate divorce than their husbands. Changes were made to the divorce process throughout the twentieth century that made divorce easier, including the Divorce Reform Act of 1969 that allowed couples to divorce after they had been separated for two years, but more often than not the divorce process continued to favour the higher earner – usually the husband.
Even as late as 2000, the award and maintenance for the less wealthy spouse – in most cases the wife – was calculated on their perceived needs in a way that many felt was lacking. The turning point often cited for the change in how ‘reasonable needs’ were awarded in the English legal system was the case of White v White that took place in that year. Martin White and his wife Pamela were both farmers who had run a highly successful farming business together that was worth approximately £4.6m. The initial divorce settlement left Pamela White with a lump sum of £800,000 while her husband was given the farms, the business and the majority of the net worth. Pamela White appealed this decision, pointing out that this settlement did not fairly represent her contribution to the partnership and was finally awarded £1.5m. This case led to ‘reasonable needs’ being more generously calculated and assets being split more fairly.
Although the number of divorces in 2009 was the lowest figure since 1974, the divorce rate is beginning to rise again. In contrast, the number of marriages in England and Wales has been falling for the past five years. The change in the divorce rate could be attributed to the number of British expatriates who are returning to England to get divorced in order to take advantage of what is perceived to be a fairer system. In fact it has sparked ‘races’ between couples with both wanting to be the first to issue a divorce petition. This is due to the European ‘first past the post’ system where the divorce is handled in the country where the papers are issued. Many cases have seen the lower-earner in an expatriate British couple wanting the divorce to take place in England while the higher-earner chooses to favour European divorce settlements.
The nature of divorce is always subject to alteration especially as society and laws continue to change. The upcoming divorce of the multi-millionaire Ben Goldsmith and his wife Kate has been branded by some divorce lawyers as the first high-profile divorce case of the ‘Twitter generation’. The couple’s separation has been all over Twitter, with both sides posting pictures and comments to support their side of the story. Though divorce proceedings may be affected by the prevalence of social media, London’s reputation as the divorce capital of the world is likely to continue for a while longer as husbands and wives persevere in trying to find a ‘better deal’ for themselves.