Show me the money

Gemma Charles reports on high-profile divorce cases that could have groundbreaking results for women

“Stand by your man”, goes the song, but wives may soon be thinking “why bother?” thanks to a number of high-profile divorce cases going through the courts that could swing the pendulum very much in their favour.

Two Court of Appeal cases, if they come down in favour of the ex-wives, could bring the UK system in line with that of the US. Karen Parlour, wife of Arsenal football player Ray Parlour and mother of his three children, split from her husband after a three-year marriage. An order gave Karen the family house, a holiday chalet, a lump sum of £250,000 and maintenance totalling £250,000 per annum. Ray Parlour is applying to reduce the award while Karen Parlour wants a further cut of his future earnings.

White v White in 2000 set the precedent that where a couple has contributed equally to a marriage, they should take out equally.

The Parlour case takes this principle a step further. Ray Parlour earns £1m per year and his ex-wife wants to apply the established 50 per cent principle to income, although because of the marriage’s brevity is prepared to take a 37.7 per cent stake, which would equal £444,000.

Her legal team argues that she should be allowed the money to save for the future, as she helped her husband grow up and stay away from alcohol. The other side says that having a share of earning capacity, possibly in perpetuity, is grossly unfair.

Much has been made of the fact that Karen Parlour is a former optician’s assistant and would never have got used to the high-life had she not married Ray Parlour. But in another high-profile divorce awaiting judgment, the same criticism cannot be made.

Julia McFarlane gave up her career working for a City law firm in order to support her husband and his career. She was awarded maintenance of £180,000 but says she is entitled to half of his £1m annual salary on the grounds that she gave up a potentially lucrative career.

Another case that has already reached judgment dealt with the muddier issue of co-habitees. Although Elayne Oxley had a 28 per cent financial stake in the house she had shared with Allan Hiscock for 10 years, the court ruled that she should be awarded 40 per cent of the sale price to take into account her contributions such as paying the bills and making home improvements.

Liz Vernon is a partner in Clintons’ family division and works exclusively in the area of family law, where she has made her name dealing with celebrity cases, so she is accustomed to facing the media glare.

She is, however, fed-up with national newspaper coverage that has portrayed her client Karen Parlour as a money-grabber.

Vernon insists that Karen’s case is “not some great feminist crusade and pro-woman thing,” but is, in fact, a “pro-fairness thing”.

She said the press is also guilty of inaccuracies. “The theory that the tabloids have been promulgating is that men will have to hand over 50 per cent of their income,” she said. In actual fact, should she and 1 Hare Court’s Nicholas Mostyn QC triumph, the principle will only be applicable to those who have a large earning capacity where there is a surplus of money after taking into account all parties’ “reasonable needs”.

She also rubbishes the idea being circulated in the press that people will flock into London to get divorced. “The thought that you could just drop in from Paris is nonsense,” she said.

Vernon is keeping her eye on the McFarlane case, which was heard straight after the Parlour case. “Parlour is not going to be earning the astronomical sums he currently earns for very much longer at all. If we win any order, what we get is going to be quite limited.” That is not the case for McFarlane.

Claire Gardner spoke to The Lawyer a day after a grilling on Channel 4 News about the implications of the win for her client Elayne Oxley.

She is pleased with the publicity that the case has got, but shies away from calling it landmark, as many have chosen to do.

“It’s taken co-habitee law a step closer to being fair,” she said. “As it stood before, the court tended to look at what parties had contributed as opposed to the history of the relationship, the pooling of resources.”

She said that the “myth of the common law wife” still persisted and she hoped that cases such as these would show people that, unlike marriage, there was no guarantee of having a stake in property once the relationship ended.

Gardner said gay couples would soon, through the Civil Partnerships Bill currently moving through Parliament, have protection akin to that of a married couple. “It leaves the heterosexual co-habitee out in the cold, which is a ludicrous situation seeing as so many people these days are living together and choosing not to get married,” she said.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Nicholas Francis QC was a man’s man if his cases of the last few weeks were anything to go by. Not only is he representing Ray Parlour, together with Alexiou Fisher Philipps partner Susan Philipps, but he also acted for Allan Hiscock with solicitor Robert Newman of the Parry Sharratt Partnership.

Francis said that this is “pure chance” and believes that he probably represents more women than men.

“Until White v White, women were pretty unfairly treated in divorce and I think there was some discrimination against women, particularly in
big-money cases,” he said.

However, he added that Karen Parlour’s demand takes things a step too far.

“The idea of splitting capital when the marriage breaks down is one thing, because it is something that you’ve accumulated together. But having an ongoing share in an earning capacity which only one person has after the marriage has ended, and possibly in perpetuity, we say is wrong and is unfair,” he said.

He is appearing in a Court of Appeal case later this year where he will argue that a husband, divorced from a very rich wife, was discriminated against because of his gender. “We will say that he was treated in a way that a wife would not have been had the roles been reversed,” he said.

But much of Francis’s work will remain firmly behind closed doors. “A lot of what I do is meeting, discussing and settling,” he said. “That’s the way of family law; most of it gets settled. You have an exchange of views, you have a meeting and then you crack a deal, but the price of the deal has gone up for the men.”