Morality, Divorce And Financial Revenge
Published on 16 June, 2023 | Sky Langwieser
The end of a marriage can be a very emotional experience.
Even for those people who remain relatively amicable and sanguine, unpicking the many individual threads of what might have been a lengthy relationship is loaded with sentiment.
Of course, regardless of the advice provided by divorce lawyers, mediators or family about the merits of avoiding conflict, there are some spouses who are left feeling raw.
That is sometimes particularly true for men and women who believe themselves to have been on the receiving end of misconduct by their partners.
To give you some idea of how frequently misbehaviour was cited as being the cause of marital collapse in England Wales, we need only look at the most recent divorce figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
They show that in 2021, just over half of all divorces granted to opposite-sex and same-sex couples were due to either unreasonable behaviour or adultery (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2021).
Yet only months later, the first major piece of divorce law reform in half a century – the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukdsi/2022/9780348230949) – took effect.
It meant that couples could petition for ‘no-fault’ divorce on the grounds that their marriages had irretrievably broken down.
That was seen by most people as a positive step. If it didn’t completely entirely remove the possibility of dispute from the divorce process, then it at least perhaps reduced the prospect of such an eventuality.
There were others, however, who considered that it denied them the opportunity to set out just how their spouse had been to blame.
Inadvertently, then, the Act exacerbated what was already something of pattern in divorce; namely, that most of the arguments tend to relate to division of joint marital assets rather than allegations made when securing divorce decrees.
The issue has been reignited by media response to an employment tribunal.
The hearing threw out an age discrimination claim by Eleanor Belson that she had unfairly been made redundant by her ex-husband, who – she alleged – had left her for a younger woman (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/6477505cb32b9e0012a95f98/Mrs_E_Belson_Vs__Jewellery_Validation_Services_Ltd.pdf).
Despite the tribunal panel concluding that “we do not consider that age had anything to do with it” and there being no suggestion of impropriety on the part of Tim Belson, a former Olympic fencer, it prompted a flurry of comment pieces.
One recommended that husbands’ infidelity should be taken into account when the terms of divorce settlements were determined.
Furthermore, it proposed that pre-nuptial agreements might include clauses effectively penalising every adulterous episode.
Equal parts eye-catching and incendiary, the article did identify how revenge is occasionally a feature of discussions about asset division.
Nevertheless, it failed to appreciate that such considerations simply do not influence these negotiations.
It is true that there are certain rules which impact on financial settlements (as set out in section 25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 – https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1973/18/section/25) but misconduct is not one of them.
That realisation can, in truth, amount to something of a double-whammy for someone going through a divorce and compounds whatever unreasonable behaviour they have complained about.
Even so, it is essential to understand that the role of the Family Court is to deliberate on matters of law and not morality.
Earlier this year, the House of Lords was told that the Government plans to ask the Law Commission to consult on possible changes to how financial settlements are put in place (https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2023-03-08/debates/3AB3D708-24E5-4FF2-8481-05EFA27E2593/DivorceFinancialProvision).
However, that aims to further remove tension from the process, along with the possible costs and court time associated with it.
Whilst it is a development which no doubt holds little satisfaction for those wanting to even the scores, it is another step in the right direction in my opinion, extinguishing instead of stoking the fires of revenge which can badly upset family relations many years after spouses go their separate ways.