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BoJo, billionaires and 'divorce tourism'

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Someone once described Boris Johnson to me as being 'like political Marmite'. For all those who believe the Mayor of London - with his shock of blonde hair, love of the Classics and strong opinions - is the best thing since the proverbial sliced loaf, there are others who bristle at the very mention of his name.

Like him or loathe him, however, there are few people among the domestic ruling parties who seem as adept as he does in occupying the editorial columns in print and online.

'BoJo' has been at it again this week. In a speech at a conference staged by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), he suggested that the "injured" wives of foreign billionaires who intended to divorce should have those proceedings heard in London "if you want to take him to the cleaners"

It may well have been merely the sort of tongue-in-cheek remark for which Mr Johnson has become renowned. However, it touched on what has become an accepted wisdom: that London is the divorce capital of the world.

The city's courts have earned a reputation for being 'wife-friendly' because of a succession of big-money settlements, including the £48 million awarded to Beverley Charman, the ex-wife of insurance tycoon, John Charman.

Add to that the increasingly international flavour of many relationships, which has enabled more foreign wives to successfully argue that they should be allowed to file for divorce in London as opposed to elsewhere. This practice, which is known as "forum shopping", predates the Charman case and was even being remarked upon nearly a decade ago.

Earlier this year, the Times reported that it had grown so common that one-in-six of all divorces heard in London had a foreign element to them.

That research, in turn, followed work by one of my fellow partners in Pannone's Family department, Vicki McLynn, which revealed how spouses were competing with one another to have their divorces heard in countries where the outcomes might be more favourable to them.

This situation, though, is not just international. Even within England and Wales, there appear to be local or regional disparities in the settlements which husbands or wives are likely to be able to secure, as another colleague, Andrew Newbury, has found

Andrew has also pointed out on the pages of The Huffington Post how the possibility of prenuptial agreements finally being given the full weight of law by the Government and a greater emphasis on what a less well-off spouse's needs might be after divorce, could stem the tide of foreign wives heading to the UK to divorce.

Certainly, courts are conscious of what are seen as extravagant settlements. A few weeks ago, one of the most senior family judges, Lord Justice Thorpe, was reported as suggesting that the sums demanded by some wives far outstripped what their actual needs were.

The proportion of foreign cases being heard in London remains high, even if there is evidence that the kind of settlements being awarded are slightly less generous than they were in previous years.

Whether he was being entirely serious or not, Boris Johnson's stated desire for more big-money divorces to take place in London in order to benefit the city's legal fraternity may not meet with the favourable reception he might have expected.

Divorce is not a competition and, when there are children involved, the idea of parents vying to secure the billions becomes even less appealing.

While government ministers, judges and family lawyers like myself are trying to take the heat out of an already emotional situation by using constructive methods such as mediation, those trying to stoke the 'forum shopping' phenomenon - even in jest - risk making headlines but appearing sadly out of step.

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