S v S: Nothing Remarkable

As mentioned by Current Awareness, The Times reports today that the Court of Appeal has upheld the decision in S v S [2008] EWHC 519 (Fam), under the headline: "Ex-wife wins new home and £50,000 a year maintenance - for her horses". On the face of it, this seems to be a quite remarkable decision. I would suggest, however, that there is nothing particularly remarkable about the way in which the case was decided.

Briefly, the facts were that this was an eleven year childless marriage, in which the wife kept horses, almost as a substitute for children. The husband was an investment banker and his future earnings were assessed to be at least £160,000 per annum net. The wife earned just £12,000 per annum net. Agreement had been reached that the liquid assets (just under £3 million) and pensions (£350,000) would be divided equally, which would provide each party (after rehousing themselves) with a Duxbury income-producing fund. The wife estimated that her income needs were some £80,000, but she sought to purchase an expensive house in Gloucestershire with enough land for her two horses, which would mean that there would be a shortfall between her income and needs of about £50,000. She therefore sought maintenance to make up this shortfall. The husband accepted that this was an appropriate case for spousal maintenance, but disputed that the wife needed to purchase such an expensive property, thereby reducing her Duxbury fund, and increasing the amount of maintenance she required. At first instance, District Judge Segal found that it was reasonable for the wife to purchase a property suitable for keeping horses, and accordingly awarded her maintenance of £50,000 per annum. The husband appealed.

In the High Court, Sir Mark Potter dismissed the appeal, essentially finding that the District Judge's decision was perfectly within his wide discretion: "This was an unusual case, the result of which depended upon the particular position of a wife whose talent with, and love for, horses had during the marriage been a prominent and accepted feature of the parties' lives. In my view it was peculiarly one for the "feel" of the District Judge in the particular circumstances". He did, however, add a warning to the wife, saying that she "should realise that it would be both foolish and ill-advised not to start planning for her future now on the basis that, if the level of the husband's income drops substantially, and she wishes to retain her horses, she will need to devise her own ways and means of doing so".

Now the Court of Appeal has also approved the District Judge's decision.

I would suggest that the mistake to make with a case like this is to look at it from the outside and apply your own standards to it. The case must be viewed upon its own particular facts and, as Sir Mark stated, horses had been a prominent feature in the lives of both of these parties. It was therefore perfectly within the District Judge's discretion to find that her horses played a significant part in the wife's needs, provided, of course, that the funds remained available for her to keep them. As to the suggestion in The Times report that the case might open the floodgates for similar claims, I think not. This was an unusual case, as Sir Mark also pointed out, and any spouse making a similar claim would have a difficult task establishing a similar position to the wife in this case.