Public Interest, Private Lives and Broken Marriages
Published on 23 January, 2017 | Alice Couriel
Glancing across the pages of our national newspapers and lifestyle magazine, it might come as a surprise to learn that the vast majority of divorces are concluded without the kind of fireworks which take up so many column inches.
Even so, the process is not without its physical and emotional stresses and strains for spouses, as countless academics have demonstrated (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2101711/Divorce-stress-syndrome-Panic-attacks-Insomnia-Crippling-pain-How-break-ups-worrying-toll-health.html).
The marriage may have been long or relatively brief but a decree absolute marks the end of a relationship which had led partners to make legal commitments to one another.
It is no wonder, therefore, that so many couples do their best for themselves, their children and families to deal with the administration which accompanies a marital collapse as confidentially as they can.
However, that wish can sometimes run counter to two sometimes opposing forces.
Firstly, news media may want to report on the divorce on the grounds that they believe it is of genuine public interest. In recent years, there has also been a move by the judiciary towards making the courts more open and accessible – allowing, if you like, justice to be seen to be done.
Three years ago this month, Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division of the High Court, underlined his desire to allow greater reporting of proceedings in order to rubbish any misconception that “we are a system of secret and unaccountable justice” (https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/transparency-in-the-family-courts-jan-2014-1.pdf).
Such initiatives have generated the sort of tensions which myself and my colleagues at Hall Brown Family Law continue to encounter on a regular basis in cases that we deal with.
It would appear that while Sir James is keen to make the mechanics of the court more public, some of his fellow judges cling firmly to the idea that everyone has a right to a private life.
Those frictions have bubbled to the surface in an Appeal Court hearing involving a woman who is seeking a larger share of her ex-husband’s wealth.
Tina Norman opted to assume ownership of her family home in Surrey and a cash sum of £6,000 to achieve a clean break and what was described as “financial independence” instead of ongoing maintenance from banker Robert Ellis Norman.
She subsequently concluded that he had “concealed” the true size of his fortune before agreeing the deal that brought to an end a 12-year marriage during which the couple had two children.
Mrs Norman has been granted permission to re-open the case and had sought to have those further deliberations heard privately.
A judge in the Court of Appeal, though, has now refused that appeal to remain anonymous on the basis of submissions by media
Reflecting on the issues thrown up by the case and given my own experience of similar matters, I find myself sympathising with both sides.
I fully understand the campaign to have a justice system which is more open and allows often difficult and sensitive topics to be examined.
On the other hand, exposure to the needs of former spouses and children leads me to support the view that everyone has the right to some element of a private life, no matter whether they are celebrities who perhaps court the press to develop careers and commercial prospects or not.
Privacy is sometimes requested by those who have profile in order to conceal wrongdoing and prevent potential reputational damage. I would argue that most divorcing spouses pursuing confidentiality do not have any such concerns in mind but are focused on moving past a difficult chapter in their family lives with as little intrusion as possible.
The fact that the very judges weighing up the merits of so many divorces cannot agree amongst themselves is surely ample illustration of how complicated the privacy debate is.