Gender Equality and Maintenance Payments in Divorce Cases

If we want gender equality then this is the reality and women must be prepared for independence.

A divorce case last week grabbed the headlines when the Court of Appeal told Tracey Wright that she could no longer expect to receive maintenance payments for herself from her former husband, a millionaire race horse surgeon. After five years of gradual reduction in payment, she will be independent. Presiding over the case, Lord Justice Pitchford stated: "There is a general expectation that, once children are in Year Two, mothers can begin part-time work and make a financial contribution."

Is it still appropriate for ex-spouses (regardless of gender) to receive huge maintenance payments? A house husband can struggle to succeed with a maintenance claim because the usual view is that he is a man and should be working. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the courts are now saying the same thing to a woman.

There are many divorce cases where maintenance orders are inevitable, for example where the wife will never be able to earn sufficient money to ensure that she has an appropriate standard of living in the future. But at the other extreme, there are claimants such as Heather Mills McCartney, who sought maintenance from Paul McCartney in their divorce at an inflated £3.25 million per annum (unsuccessfully).

I was asked by a senior male lawyer, my opposite number on a case several years ago, whether I didn't feel "persecuted" as a working mother of a young child. He was acting for the wife in the case; I was acting for the husband. The wife was a talented businesswoman with a good career. Yet she still wanted substantial maintenance from the husband, even though his income was irregular. She appeared to feel that it was her "right" as a wife.

The case of Tracey Wright involves fairly modest sums and aspirations. But as she had office experience and was a trained riding instructor, it is perhaps hard to understand why, as her youngest child progressed in her schooling, she did not of her own volition, return to work which would have meant that the maintenance could at least be reduced.

If we want gender equality then this is the reality and women must be prepared for independence.

When she was aged five, my daughter stood up in her class assembly and told the room that she wanted to be "a lawyer like mummy" when she grew up. Her ambitions have changed several times since then, but each time the plan is for a job that would provide her with independence. We do need to be aware that our children need role models.

Yet not everyone has a choice. Some women who haven't had the opportunity to obtain qualifications before their marriage and who are restricted to working only during school hours, find the search for a job after their divorce to be very difficult.

I have acted for many women in their late 40s or 50s, who haven't worked for maybe twenty years, who have no computer skills and no idea of where to start back in the world of employment. For some of them, their husbands were most insistent that their wives were to give up work as they saw this as being a mark of their financial success in their careers. The fact that their wife's career was being dealt a potential fatal blow, never to be successfully resurrected, probably never occurred to them.

To portray these women as feckless spongers is way off the mark. There are cases of "gold diggers" and "botox wives", but the bulk of the cases in front of the court are very different.

Most of these women want to work, they are very keen to pay their way in the world in so far as they can, they want to expand their horizons past toddler groups and the school playground and they want to regain some self-respect, perhaps after a difficult and traumatic relationship breakdown.

We should recognise the rich seam of potential talent here. As a society, we need to ensure that there is affordable child care, accessible retraining courses and suitable careers guidance to enable these women to contribute to society outside the home. It will also assist for employers to continue to promote flexible working arrangements. Caring for one's children is of course an amazing contribution to society and I am not denigrating that for a minute. But if a mother wants to work but cannot, then brutally terminating her maintenance is not the answer. As the Court have discretion in such cases, each can be looked at on its own facts, and let's hope that justice prevails.

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