As reported in The Times today and elsewhere, the Court of Appeal has found in favour of Dennis North, who was appealing against the decision last year to award £202,000 from his retirement fund to his ex-wife, Jean North, whom he divorced in 1978, although Mrs North may yet receive "some modest award". This well-publicised case raises two important and linked issues:
Firstly, it brings the law into disrepute when it seems to be so manifestly out of touch with the public perception of 'fairness'. The media has jumped on the basic facts: wife commits adultery, leaves husband to bring up the children, husband provides generously for her, wife gets into financial difficulty after living an extravagant lifestyle beyond her means, so wife comes back many years later for a 'second bite at the cherry', and wins. The Court of Appeal may now have put this right, but the damage has been done.
So why did the court below come to its decision? This brings me to my second point. The simple fact is that the law on financial settlements after divorce is now so uncertain that it has become a lottery. I won't criticise the District Judge in this case - he was working with a system in which Parliament gave very little guidance and so we have to rely upon a lengthening series of often conflicting judgments from the higher courts. There is now a clear need for statutory clarity in this important area, but unfortunately there appears to be no governmental will to grasp the nettle.