Wife prop

After her victory in the Karen Parlour case, Liz Vernon sets the record, and her critics, straight. Gemma Charles reports

How exciting. Waiting in the reception at Clintons was two women who look like mother and daughter (and let’s say for argument’s sake they are). The daughter exudes Essex chic – deep tan, immaculate make-up, killer heels – and given that this is the firm which counts the now infamous Karen Parlour as a client, I can’t help wondering whether I’m sitting opposite another wronged footballer’s wife with her mother in tow?

Of course, this is an incredibly slim premise on which to make such an assumption, but when the mother figure leans over to the younger woman, pats her gently on the knee and asks whether she is all right, I go into overdrive trying to work out whether I’ve seen her posing and smiling out of a mock Tudor mansion in Hello!.

If only the mother would say something like, “don’t worry dear, you won’t have to be Mrs [insert footballer’s name] for much longer”. But my fanciful thoughts come to an abrupt end as Liz Vernon, the person I’m here to see, sweeps into the reception and whisks me off to a side room.

‘Pocket dynamo’ is a term usually applied to sports people, but it certainly fits Vernon. She is tiny yet has a booming, larger person’s laugh and she oozes energy.

And she has had to be very energetic of late. On 7 July the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of her client Karen Parlour, awarding her £444,000 – 37.5 per cent of Arsenal footballer Ray Parlour’s £1.2m salary.

The decision has generated intense interest and since then Vernon has been rushing around appearing on TV and giving interviews to national newspapers on the case that is causing hot debate in legal circles and beyond.

If some commentators are to be believed, Vernon’s win threatens the institution of marriage, an idea she finds amusing. “I wouldn’t want to do that, would I?” she says, letting out a huge guffaw, “I’d be doing myself out of a job. I’m all in favour of marriage, there should be more of it.”

But on a serious note, she is annoyed by the amount of misinformation being peddled about the win. Speaking at her usual 100 miles-an-hour pace, Vernon explains the subtleties of the case that few have been willing or able to grasp.

The belief that Karen Parlour received the award because she saved Ray Parlour from gambling and drinking is wrong, she says. It is true that in the High Court, Lord Justice Thorpe did make a finding that she was responsible for getting her husband to turn his back on the laddish culture prevalent at Arsenal at the time. However, Vernon says this was not the justification on which the judge made the order and has nothing to do with the Court of Appeal order.

The other misunderstood part of the case is the basis on which the award was made. It was not made on the 50/50 principle established by White, although this was what Karen Parlour’s barrister Nicholas Mostyn QC had sought. Instead, the court rejected this and made the award on the grounds of a clean break.

“It’s an exceptional case,” says Vernon. “You obviously have this phenomenally high income, but at the same time there was not an enormous pot of capital. So, in normal cases where you’ve got a huge amount of capital you can buy a clean break on both capital and maintenance at the point of divorce. In this case, there wasn’t enough to buy out her maintenance needs.”

Therefore, and this is what Vernon says is the landmark element, for the first time the court ruled that income could be used to create capital. Of the £444,000 award, Karen Parlour is required to save £294,000.

“If [Ray Parlour] carries on earning big money, hopefully at the end of the four-year term she’ll have built up a significant lump sum and the court will say, if you invest that it will produce an annual income of X, so we’re going to terminate your maintenance claim.”

The amounts involved are dizzying. Vernon is the first to admit that someone can live more than comfortably on £100,000 a year, which was what Ray Parlour wanted to pay his ex-wife – not the £120,000 as reported. But Vernon argues that “you have to get away from the figures and try and look at the principle, because the figures distort everything”.

She says: “Karen hasn’t sat down and said ‘I want £444,000’. The Court of Appeal – the second-highest court in the land – has looked at the paperwork and said this is the appropriate order. It’s a question of what value you put on staying at home and bringing up children.”

But complexities such as these are not the stuff of a media obsessed with soundbites and black-and-white issues, she admits. “What they want us to believe is that it’s an outrageous order, some dramatic new piece of judicial wisdom that’s altering everything and will ruin marriage, but nothing could be further from the truth.
But of course to say it’s an exceptional case isn’t good press,” she says.

Aside from contending with ignorant members of the fourth estate, or, as happened last year, receiving a fake bomb allegedly from Fathers 4 Justice, Vernon loves her chosen line of work.

She arrived at Clintons in 1999 from Mishcon de Reya with lawyer Maggie Rae, who famously advised Diana, Princess of Wales on her divorce. They left Mishcons because she says it was a place they “no longer felt comfortable in”. After assessing the market, the pair made a successful approach to Clintons and the move marked the birth of the entertainment firm’s family division. This catapulted the firm, best-known for its top-tier music and more recently sports practices, into the matrimonial ‘magic circle’.

And she says it is working well. “There’s a nice marriage between the sports law people on the commercial and litigation side and us and also the entertainment practice,” she says.

Laura Bruno, the ex-wife of Frank Bruno, recommended Clintons to Karen Parlour and Nick Faldo’s former wife has also used the department’s services, while on the entertainment side, Shane Ritchie was referred through one of the entertainment clients.

“It’s a real family environment. Partners socialise and by and large get on well,” says Vernon. Of course all firms like to present a unified front, but in this case it might actually be true. No equity partner has left, unless to retire, in the past 10 years and no equity partner has ever left the firm to join a competing practice.

This feel-good factor is reaping real profits. Clintons’ turnover to 30 June 2003 was more than £8m, with more than 50 per cent of this being attributable to the firm’s equity partners. Turnover was up 10 per cent and profits up 30 per cent on the previous year. This year’s figures are anticipated to exceed this.

“We’ve much fewer assistants than we do partners and it shouldn’t work but it does, because the sort of clients we work for want the name, they want the person that acted for Karen Parlour, that acted for the Princess of Wales. So we don’t have the pressure to build up this vast junior department,” says Vernon.

Asked why she enjoys working in matrimonial, Vernon says: “People come to me, male and female, in pieces. It’s nice when you see them gradually putting themselves back together again, getting their confidence back.

“I don’t see a matrimonial lawyer’s job as a wrecker’s job, as the general public sees them. By the time a client gets to us the job is usually pretty satisfactorily done by the clients themselves. Their marriages are usually wrecked without any assistance from us.”

Rather than a wrecker, Vernon sees her job as advising someone whose life has broken down. She tries to reconstruct that life by giving them a financial building block to do it. “I get a great degree of satisfaction from seeing my clients going out and being able to get on with their lives,” she says. I’m sure Karen Parlour would agree.
Liz Vernon