In the case of Hart v Hart, His Honour Judge Wildblood QC awarded Karen Hart just £3.5m out of the total assets amounting to just under £9.4m in a financial remedy order made in June 2015. This unusual ruling wasn’t as a result of a ‘short, sharp’ marriage as documented previously, as the couple’s marriage spanned 23 years.
Karen Hart’s solicitor said the settlement 'should have been based on an equal sharing of the assets they created between them during this time', and the recent ruling 'leaves the law in a state of flux. It allows a trial judge to find that even where it is not properly evidenced, the financial contribution of one spouse outweighs the family and domestic contribution of the other. This can lead to a result that is unfair and discriminatory, as it has done in this case. More such results are likely to follow, with the potential to set the law back more than 20 years'.
Regardless of whether this latest ruling will indeed set a precedent for financial remedy cases moving forward, it will no doubt make couples who are looking to wed in the near future think about their financial assets, and how best to allocate them should the worst occur by drafting up a prenuptial agreement.
Mrs Owens originally petitioned for divorce against her husband of 37 years on the basis of his unreasonable behaviour. Under the law in England and Wales, a petition on this basis is one of only two ways separating couples can commence divorce proceedings immediately. Mr Owens defended the proceedings which in itself is somewhat unusual.
Multiple court hearings have since followed and the court have found, to date, that the examples of unreasonable behaviour Mrs Owens included within her divorce petition are not enough to satisfy the threshold, trapping her in what she calls “a loveless marriage”. The Court of Appeal found that "Parliament has decreed that it is not a ground for divorce that you find yourself in a wretchedly unhappy marriage, though some people may say it should be."
There is current debate surrounding whether there should be legislation to allow separating couples to divorce immediately on a ‘no fault basis’. The idea is that this would enable couples to engage in the divorce process on a more amicable, less confrontational basis and would hopefully avoid the type of litigation Mr & Mrs Owens have had to endure.
The case demonstrates that it is vital to seek legal advice at the outset of separation to ensure that unnecessary, costly and stressful litigation can be avoided.
Mr and Mrs Sharp were married for four years. They had no children together and both worked full-time earning approximately £100,000 per year each. Mrs Sharp, however, did receive significant bonuses amounting to over £10 million during the marriage. Throughout the course of their marriage, the couple kept their finances separate, although they did purchase property together and shared in the costs of acquiring and refurbishing those properties.
Upon Mrs Sharp finding out Mr Sharp was having an affair in 2013, she issued divorce proceedings and the financial elements of those proceedings were initially determined by the court in November 2015. The Judge decided that Mr Sharp was entitled to exactly half of the matrimonial pot, which amounted to £2.75 million. This decision was very much in line with the long-established sharing principle upon divorce. Mrs Sharp appealed that decision and argued that the equal sharing of the matrimonial assets, which were mostly built up by her, was unfair.
The Court of Appeal have recently found in Mrs Sharp’s favour and decreased the award to Mr Sharp to £2million, which is less than 50% of the matrimonial pot. This decision is a significant departure from the long-established principle of splitting the matrimonial assets down the middle upon divorce, despite the length of the marriage.
Lord Justice McFarlane, one of the three Appeal Court Judges, found that in this case there was no impediment to depart from the established principle of equal division and he concluded that in a short, dual career marriage in which the couple had kept their finances separate, it was indeed justified.
This decision creates further uncertainty in the law and conflicts with the general principle of an equal split upon divorce. This case concentrates on the fairness of the outcome in the circumstances of this couple’s situation and clearly reflects the position that the courts will not apply an automatic split down the middle in every case and that the couple’s circumstances must be considered in each and every case.