Divorce bills could be slashed under review ordered by Government into 50-year-old law
Divorce laws dating back 50 years could be overhauled to make it easier for separating spouses to avoid spending huge sums on lawyers.
The government is to review the 1973 The Matrimonial Causes Act which determines how financial assets are split after divorce in England and Wales.
Critics say the legislation is uncertain and unpredictable as it has been developed by case law, allowing judges to use their discretion to assess each case and make different awards. Spouses are therefore often forced to fund costly legal battles due to a lack of clear guidance on how wealth should be divided.
The Government is to review the 1973 Matrimonial Causes Act
Baroness Fiona Shackleton, a peer and leading divorce lawyer who has represented clients including King Charles, Princess Haya and Paul McCartney, told the House of Lords this month: ‘Divorce practitioners like me make a fortune in arguing, because the guidelines are 50 years out of date.’
Lord Bellamy, justice minister, plans to ask the Law Commission, the independent agency which reviews legislation, to examine whether the act needs updating.
He said: ‘The Government is in close consultation with the Law Commission, which we consider the most appropriate body to carry out that review. These matters will be considered fully in a forthcoming review, hopefully by the Law Commission.
‘The Government thinks that the Law Commission is best placed to investigate all these matters, establish what the existing law and practice is and where the problems lie, and make comparative studies of various other jurisdictions, including Australia and elsewhere, as has already been mentioned.’
The English legal system tends to split the combined wealth of divorcing spouses equally even if one partner is the breadwinner in contrast to many other European countries.
As a result, London has become a magnet for wealthy couples seeking a divorce because of the generosity of financial awards given to ex-wives.
Lawyers also highlighted regional variations in how divorces are settled with London courts tending to award more generously. Some also argue that the law fails to reflect the way British society has changed in the past 50 years – with women more financially independent and couples both earning becoming the norm.
Prenuptial agreements which have been recognised since 2010 following a Supreme Court case involving German paper industry heiress Katrin Radmacher should be also put on a more formal footing and be enshrined in law, experts say.
Jo Edwards, chairman of the family law reform group for Resolution, which represents family justice professionals told the Financial Times: ‘There are undoubtedly areas which need greater clarity such as spousal maintenance payments – whether any should be paid and if so, how much and for how long.’
Baroness Deech, a crossbench peer in the House of Lords who is calling for reform of the 1973 legislation, said: ‘There can be no doubt that the state of the current law is unacceptable.’
She also pointed out that many spouses on lower incomes now have to represent themselves in court, since legal aid has been removed from most family law cases.
She told the House of Lords this month that the current law is ‘lagging 50 years behind nearly every other country in the western world, including Australia’.
The Ministry of Justice declined to comment further.