Charlotte Posnansky explains why the claimant in Wright v Wright might be changing more than just careers
Last week, a judge in the Court of Appeal told the former wife of a high-earning equine surgeon that she 'must get a job' as she had 'no right to be supported for life' by her former husband. The full judgment has not yet been released, but the ruling has certainly fuelled discussion about the extent to which a former wife can expect financial support after divorce – even a quick look on the newspaper comment sections shows that emotions run high on either side.
The issue arose in the context of an application to vary the maintenance Mrs Wright was given about six years after the original divorce. At the time, after an eleven-year marriage, Mrs Wright was reportedly given a mortgage-free property worth ’450,000 (with stabling) and ’75,000 per annum in maintenance and school fees. But six years later she had made no effort to find work or support herself and Mr Wright was concerned that his approaching retirement would make the payments unaffordable.
The first judge to hear the case had unusually harsh words for her and her intention to be a stay-at-home mother. She ordered a steady reduction in her spousal maintenance over the five-year period before the husband's retirement.
Mrs Wright appealed. In refusing her permission to appeal, Lord Justice Pitchford said, 'There is a general expectation that, once children are in year two, mothers can begin part-time work and make a financial contribution.'
But before every aggrieved former husband starts quoting the judgment, it is important to remember that the original decision was at a relatively low-level court and the case inevitably turned on specific facts including, importantly, Mr Wright's approaching retirement and Mrs Wright's questionable efforts to find work.
But, there does certainly seem to be a sense that the tide is beginning to turn. This case also echoes comments by Mr Justice Mostyn in a judgment last year when he expressed similar views about the principles of spousal maintenance. Wright v Wright is not an isolated case.
It is interesting to see how different divorce settlements look elsewhere. Just over the border in Scotland, for example, spousal maintenance is unusual and at best it would be paid for a period of three years. Other European countries adopt a similarly restrictive approach.
England is rather an anomaly in often providing spousal support for joint lives and much has been said about former wives having a 'meal ticket' for life. Baroness Deech is graphic about the damaging message she thinks such an approach sends to young women: 'Never mind about A-Levels or a degree or taking the Bar course – go out and find a footballer to marry.'
Quite apart from the unfairness to men, encouragement to women to shun work in this way is undoubtedly regressive for gender equality.
On the other hand, re-establishing a career years or decades after leaving the workforce is of course extremely difficult and daunting. It is always tough for someone in middle age to find work that easily fits around children and is economically viable given the notoriously high costs of childcare.
And it might be questioned whether it is fair to expect this if one spouse is a high-earner and may have encouraged the other to stop work for the benefit of the family. They are not on the same economic footing and undoubtedly will not have equivalent earning capacities as a result of their presumed joint decisions in the marriage. In that case, surely it's right for a woman to be compensated for a relationship generated economic disadvantage.
It is too early to say how far these principles will be picked up and run with by the judges of the Family Division, but what's clear is that they could have far-reaching effects.