Divorce in a transatlantic style

When one of the world's richest men decides to divorce the case is bound to be far from simple. And proceedings leading up to the recent grant of a decree nisi in London to US billionaire Robert Dart have been no exception.

And the fact that mirror proceedings are running in courts on the other side of the Atlantic has multiplied the problems.

In London the case has been masterminded by top divorce solicitor Margaret Bennett who found herself at the sharp end of one of the world's highest profile divorce actions after an unexpected phone call from the US in February this year.

Since then she has been defending 37-year-old Katina Dart, wife of US billionaire Robert Dart, part of the dynasty responsible for running the massive Dart Container Corp. The business, reputed to be worth billions and to have made Dart himself a personal billionaire, specialises in the manufacture of polystyrene boxes and cups for fast food.

For Bennett transatlantic time zones, the need for her client to shuttle between the US and UK and duplicate US proceedings have given her and her four-strong team of solicitors some serious logistical headaches.

The story behind the case is pure Hollywood. In a tax move, Robert Dart gave up US citizenship, took out passports in Belize and Ireland and moved to the UK as a tax exile with his wife and their two children.

This February however, less than one year after moving to London, he unexpectedly filed for divorce in the High Court. This was despite an earlier agreement his wife says they had reached that the divorce would take place in US courts.

Bennett was called in by US attorney John Schaefer who was instructed by Mrs Dart. And the case has rapidly grown to dominate much of her working time and to become one of the most complex, big money divorces the courts here have seen. Dart has been accused of 'forum shopping' in a bid to run a 'millionaire's defence' in the High Court here.

Attempts were made to persuade the High Court not to deal with the matter on the basis that the Darts are all US born, have not taken out UK citizenship, and the only logical place for the action is the US.

However, after preliminary skirmishes which included making the children temporary wards of court, the divorce went ahead on 27 July. After dropping adultery allegations he won a decree nisi despite his wife defending claims she had behaved unreasonably.

The US proceedings are still active, however, and the courts there may still go ahead and deal with the petition.

Bennett documents the problems faced by herself and her team. "For a start we had multiple proceedings early on in this country because of the children being warded. In the interests of the stability of the children's home life they needed to be dealt with as quickly as possible. That of course created a demanding work load," she says.

"The fact we had mirror proceedings on the other side of the Atlantic brought added considerations into play, however. They have meant that we have had to look at every single, move, not just from the legal point of view of what they meant or might achieve in this country, but also what their implications will be in the US. And the same has applied to the legal team in the US."

In court the team on behalf of Mrs Dart has been led by James Munby QC, a family law specialist who also has a strong reputation in commercial law. "I felt it was essential to have someone with his sort of experience running a matrimonial case with the sort of money at stake in this one. Both his specialist areas of practice have been invaluable," says Bennett.

Another problem was having to explain to a client, used to a different system, what the various moves in England mean. "We have continually had to remind ourselves of the different perspective we have here and that the client is embroiled in a legal system completely alien to them," says Bennett.

Difficulties in time zones compounded matters. "It has meant that much work, certainly in the form of phone calls, has had to be done at very odd hours," says Bennett. "Logistical difficulties in this case have been colossal."