The brave new world of divorce

Times Online, May 26, 2006

One of my less-than-reconstructed male friends is having trouble adjusting to the brave new world heralded by the House of Lords' landmark decision in the cases of Miller v Miller and McFarlane v McFarlane.

"It’s an outrage!" were his words, swiftly followed by a desperate plea: "What can I do?" If this sounds a tad too dramatic, it is because my friend was steeling himself for the impending arrival of his own divorce. His wife of seven days, three hours and 24 minutes has declared that she has had enough, and, moreover, that she wants what’s rightfully hers.

My friend lives in Cardiff (I have, of course, changed the details and exaggerated as wildly as possible), and has recently taken to marauding its streets singing songs not by Charlotte Church but by Wales’s other popular musicians of note, Goldie Lookin’ Chain. His favourite song is the band’s hit, Your Missus is a Nutter, which, for those unacquainted with its blend of wit and ingenuousness, chronicles the adventures of an everyman figure whose nights out are ritually destroyed by his best friend’s binge-drinking wife. My friend warms to this song because, in his view, it is a fair and accurate portrayal of his own spouse.

My friend's frustrations with her, it transpires, are nothing compared with hers. A lengthy engagement of some five weeks culminated in longed-for nuptials seven days, three hours and 29 minutes ago, themselves followed by a riotous honeymoon on Swansea's High Street. Whether it was a peculiarly vicious hangover or merely an inability to adapt to the demands of married life, within minutes of the happy couple’s return to Cardiff things began to go awry, with my friend’s wife – a woman who has taken laddette behaviour to a new level - occasionally sullen and withdrawn, or, more commonly, axe-wielding and inebriated. Matters came to head within seconds of the announcement of the Miller decision, news of which my friend’s wife witnessed on local television.

"Five million?" she was heard to scream. "What a diabolical liberty! Call that justice? Why didn’t she get the lot?" Of the McFarlane ruling, which will see Mrs MacFarlane receive £250,000 a year from her ex-husband rather than the same sum for five years, she was even more aggrieved. "How can anyone be expected to live on that? I mean, once you’re accustomed to a certain standard, there should be no questions asked, period. How can that man live with himself, having put her through the courts like that, and all over a measly few million quid? Why didn’t the judges make him hand over every penny he’s got?"

My friend’s wife added that she was heartily sick and tired of him. At that juncture, he had merely whistled Your Missus is a Nutter a couple of times, in the bathroom and the registry office, but she had seen the danger signs. "Don’t think you can get away with it!" she warned, before turfing him out for good and promising to call her lawyer.

"She hasn’t even got a lawyer," said my friend, "except for the local duty solicitor. Will he know anything about divorce law?" Unlikely, I replied; she will have to consult a specialist if she is serious about trying to obtain her share of the matrimonial assets. "Do divorce lawyers exist, even here in Wales?" my friend asked anxiously. "Yes," I said, "they are everywhere."

My friend collapsed in a heap. Just seven days, five hours and three minutes after what should have been the happiest day of his life, he was being confronted by a shotgun divorce. He is not a wealthy man, but might be one day, thanks to a business he just set up that will specialise in the legitimate circumvention of the software that currently prevents online poker players from seeing one another’s cards. My friend’s business plan is, he assures me, strictly legal. Wearily, he peered again at the frayed newspaper reports of the Miller and McFarlane cases.

"It says here that the man’s conduct was not relevant," he said. He was right: his adultery did not influence the award of £5 million. "And also it says that she didn’t have a 'legitimate expectation' that as soon as she married a wealthy man she would by definition be on 'a higher economic plane.'" Again true. "But the increase in his wealth after they got married was the key factor." I said that that was my reading of the judgment. My friend mumbled that he would think about things and give me a call later.

He was beaten to it by his wife. "Do you know any divorce lawyers?" she asked. "I hear you can get a fortune if you know one." I said there were certain preconditions, such as the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage and a wealthy husband, but that no, I didn’t know any divorce lawyers. As soon as she’d hung up, muttering about maybe having him back, my friend was back on the line.

"I’ve reread all the reports. I reckon I can still sing Your Missus is a Nutter, but I’d better hope the business doesn’t take off," he announced. I checked this with my father, a solicitor who was once a specialist in divorce law. He said to tell the pair of them that I was on the case and do nothing. In 99 out of 100 matrimonial cases, this principle, said my Dad, was infallible