The prying game
23 October 2000
There is, as the cliché goes, no such thing as an easy divorce. But when the split involves high-profile celebrity clients, jockeying for position in the hearts of an adoring public through the press can be as much of an issue as who keeps the St Tropez villa.
For a lawyer whose professional ethics embrace the importance of confidentiality, it can make handling divorce proceedings even more tricky than usual.
Those who pick up the pieces after the stars split have to arm themselves with a set of tools to ward off unwelcome intrusions from the very journalists that their clients have courted in happier days.
Maggie Rae, family law partner at Clintons, has had her fair share of dealings with showbiz journalists and is under no delusion about the way the more unscrupulous of their breed can operate. "The biggest thing in high-profile cases is discretion," says Rae. "Clients who have had press attention during their divorce have found it almost intolerable. The press are appalling sometimes, they plague us and they plague our clients. It's a pain in the neck."
But although the press is an aggressive animal, many lawyers agree that it has to be handled gently.
Elizabeth Vernon, also a partner at Clintons, says: "You don't want to put their backs up. What we always say is that we can't comment - in the politest way possible. My personal view is that some lawyers court publicity. I don't. It'll turn around and bite you on the bum, rest assured."
But things are not always so simple. In any celebrity divorce there is always the risk of any number of parties leaking information to the papers. It is also not unheard-of for firms to be burgled and sensitive information sold to the media.
Vernon says that extra steps sometimes need to be taken. "You have to think ahead a bit, make sure that if you're taking a particular client to court then you go in through the back door."
The high stakes of playing with the media means that secret rendezvous are not just confined to clandestine love trysts. Withers family law partner James Harcus says that if a well-known divorce lawyer is seen talking to a celebrity then tongues will begin to wag.
Meeting away from public eyes and on neutral territory is a way of avoiding such scrutiny. Beyond this, he has used such covert tactics as false names, codewords and even special secure briefcases. "It's very James Bond," says Harcus. "I've seen cases where all the papers associated with a case are kept in a strong room, rather than in a locked filing cabinet."
But he is not naive about how the press come to find out about who is divorcing who. These are clients, after all, who may have built up their entire career through the press and when they have treated journalists as confidants in every other aspect of their life, remaining tight-lipped during their divorce can prove difficult.
Harcus says: "Many more leaks come either from the husband or the wife than they do from any other source. In many cases, emotions run high and it is easy for people to be caught off guard when they're pretty cross with their spouse."
For this reason many higher-profile cases often include a confidentiality clause. This prevents either side from spilling the beans on some of the finer points of the ill-fated marriage.
And many believe that the culprits lie within the legal system itself, handing out information from the inside.
One source at a top City firm says: "One of the strange issues that we face is the extent to which court documents, which should be confidential, are in any way obtainable by the press. They always seem to know when some famous person's divorce petition has been filed, and we never quite know how that happens."
But the amount of confidential information finding its way into the public domain is minimal compared to years gone by. This is mainly thanks to the general opinion among lawyers that press attention is a hindrance and not to be courted.
Miles Preston & Co senior partner Miles Preston believes that the best way to avoid the press is to abstain from telling them anything. "Our approach, and our advice to our clients, is that we just don't join in. The general rule is that responding to the press just gives them something else to build an article around."
Preston is joined in his opinion by Jeremy Levison, partner at niche family and divorce firm Levison Meltzer Pigott, who has never entertained the idea that press coverage can do any good. He says: "I think that, as divorce lawyers, we actually shy away from publicity. I personally do not fight any aspect of my client's cases in the press. I think it is counter-productive and when there are children involved it can be devastating."
When public attention is inevitable, Levison suggests that everybody should get their stories right. "Quite frequently in very high-profile cases you will have decided in advance what you are going to tell the press. Sometimes, the story is agreed with both your client and with the opposite number."
Quite apart from the personal hurt a tabloid headline can cause clients, Bates Wells & Braithwaite's Frances Hughes believes that often lawyers who seek publicity for their client are not working in their client's best legal interests. "Most people think that it's a very bad idea to get publicity for your clients," she says. "Judges don't like it, it's never in the interests of the children and it can impact badly."
Hughes believes that those lawyers who persuade their clients to go to the press are simply trying to further their own career, rather than the needs of their clients. It can even be damaging not just for the case, but also for the firm involved. "Actually it's not in anybody's interests," she says. But at the end of the day, she concedes that if a client wants publicity, there is very little she can do to stop them. "There's nothing to stop a client talking to the press or instructing Max Clifford - you can't really stop anybody telling their story."
But even if it is generally agreed in legal circles that press attention is anything but beneficial to a divorce case, are there any arguments in favour of such publicity?
Inevitably, PR guru and self-styled "King of Spin" Max Clifford believes that there are benefits to be found from media coverage, as threatening to talk to the press can speed up the divorce settlement.
"I do it all the time," he says. "Press attention is a huge tool in manoeuvring them into a generous settlement. Stars rely on their image. If there's something going to appear in the media which is potentially damaging to their image, their appeal or their ego, then they're very anxious to stop it.
"They won't want a messy divorce played out in front of the public, they would want it quietly settled. They wouldn't want the wife or the husband talking about all of the nasty, terrible things they're guilty of. It's damaging to them."
Manches partner Richard Sax disagrees with Clifford's point of view. For him, preparation and organisation are everything. He believes that prevention is better than cure. "I think the first thing you should try and do is to be as upfront as you can when dealing with the other spouse. This is so that they don't feel the need to spill the emotional beans."
Mishcon de Reya's head of family Sandra Davis says that a different approach is necessary for controlling what is published. With so many celebrity clients, press attention is inevitable and a stronger approach needs to be taken. She believes that being open with the media about celebrity clients provides the best form of damage limitation. "If you've got the experience, and to some extent, the nerve, you can actually control what's going on in the press," she says.
The idea at Mishcons is that drip-feeding information to the press ensures accuracy in what is reported, and reduces the number of journalists camped on its doorstep. Mishcons generally consults an external PR agent and issues statements at stages throughout the case.
"You need to make sure you don't make enemies of the press," explains Davis. "We do not encourage clients to litigate in the press, but we try to encourage clients to feel that they should not be frightened of the press."
The amount of coverage that Mishcons receives as a result of its client portfolio is so great that it has produced a booklet for its private clients. "Managing the Media" details ways of dealing with attention when it cannot be completely avoided.
But at the end of the day, it seems that if somebody wants it in the press they'll get it there. But many of the top lawyers have difficulty holding back a wry smile when they think of what the papers have not managed to get their hands on.
"There's huge amounts of stuff that would interest and amuse the public," admits Levison. "Occasionally we are presented with all sorts of riveting information, but there is absolutely no way that it would ever, ever, leave the confines of the professionals involved."
Hughes agrees: "Most lawyers would agree that there are incredible secrets out there and everybody's filing cabinets are full of stuff that would be gold dust. All sorts of people have the most astonishing stories, much more flamboyant than anything you can imagine that has hit the press."