Divide the contributions not the assets

Lady Conran's "outstanding contribution to the home" was formally recognised by the courts in a judgment which will influence future ancillary relief cases, says Erica Shelton. Erica Shelton is a partner at Rooks Rider and solicitor to Lady Conran.

The Conran divorce case has provided long overdue judicial recognition of the value of a woman's contribution to the home.

The case was always going to hit the news because of the parties involved, but Sir Terence Conran's reported comment to The Times that "she cooked a few meals now and again and wrote a few books;

I taught her how to cook", turned a good story into headline news.

From a legal point of view, Mr Justice Wilson's judgment is of great significance and will influence the approach other judges will take in ancillary relief cases. This will be especially true in the case of long marriages where the wealth has been built up during the course of the marriage.

This judgment will also help the spouse – most often the wife – who gives up her own career to run the home and provide the infrastructure for the other spouse – most often the husband – to go out and develop his career and make the money.

So why is this different? In England, unlike in many other jurisdictions, there are no set rules for the division of assets on divorce. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 states that the court has regard to "all the circumstances of the case" and then sets out a list of criteria to be taken into account.

These include considering the parties' respective income and capital, and their respective requirements based on the standard of living enjoyed by the family during the marriage.

It also includes the contributions which each of the parties has made, or is likely to make, to the welfare of the family, including any contribution made by looking after the home or caring for the family.

The general approach, even in the big money cases, has been to allow only for the wife's contribution in determining the reasonableness of her requirements.

Mr Justice Wilson, commenting on earlier cases says, "in other words, her contribution will make it reasonable for her to have greater requirements".

In most earlier cases, the court has only given the wife an amount over and above her reasonable needs where she has made a direct financial contribution. She has not received an additional amount for her contribution as a wife and mother.

Mr Justice Wilson prefers an alternative approach, which is to "survey her reasonable requirements without regard to the contribution and then to place it into the balance, together with any other relevant factors not already allowed for in the determination of the reasonableness of the requirements".

In other words, if the wife has made a valuable contribution and the assets allow it, she should get a share of her husband's wealth over and above what she merely needs.

In Lady Conran's case, her contributions to the welfare of the family, not only as a wife and mother, but also towards Sir Terence's business success, were described by the judge as outstanding.

"The wife's energy was almost as prodigious as that of the husband; and her contribution to the welfare of the family in every sense was outstanding," he said.

But he added: "There is not one law for the wife who makes a direct, financial contribution and another law for all the others; and other types of contribution can, in principle, be no less influential upon the result."

So the wife who provides the infrastructure to enable the husband to go out and make the money would also be entitled to a share of the wealth over and above her needs.

This has to be right particularly after a long marriage which produces children. Why should a wife give up her career to run the home and look after the children, which is far more tiring than most paid work and generally accompanied by a complete lack of public recognition, and then after 20 years not be entitled to more than just her reasonable needs?

Lady Conran received an award that brought her assets of £5.7m up to £10.5m. Compared with her husband's net wealth of £80m, this is not a large percentage.

She did not get this award because she was "fragrant" or "beautiful, creative, energetic and instinctively stylish" as the press has suggested. She got it because she deserved it for her "outstanding contributions" during more than 30 years of marriage.