There was much comment in the press when Mr and Mrs Wright were in the Court of Appeal earlier this year. Headlines such as ‘Spousal Maintenance no longer meal ticket for life’ and ‘Ex-wives with children over seven may have to work.’
Of course it is a bit more subtle than that. And it must be remembered that was a ‘big money’ case. They had already split their ‘7-bedroom home in 16 acres’ as the Mail put it when they divorced in 2008.
Mr Wright, who is a wealthy racehorse surgeon, had successfully applied to Court to reduce the sums of maintenance he was already paying. Mrs Wright decided to appeal as not only had the sums to be paid been reduced, but the Judge had also reduced the time for which the maintenance was to be paid. It went from, effectively, until the end of her life, to reducing and then ending in four years’ time when Mr Wright was to retire. A big change.
Mrs Wright, did not have a job, and since the divorce in 2008 had not got one as she was looking after their youngest, who was now 10. Both of their children were now at school, with the elder daughter at boarding school. Mr Wright had been ordered to pay a total of £75,000 per year, of which school fees and child maintenance was the largest share, but £32,000 was for Mrs Wright.
Lord Justice Pitchford was obviously not impressed with Mrs Wright and noted that the last Judge she had appeared before had commented:
‘I do not anticipate her having a significant earning capacity nor would it be reasonable to expect her to muck out stables for the minimum wage. However, she should make some financial contribution.’
Despite this, Mrs Wright had made no effort at all to re-train or get a job. I think this rather got up the learned Law Lord’s nose.
Now it is easy to overplay the significance of this and there were many factors that make this a one-off. The concept of maintenance of a spouse was introduced in 1857 to make sure wives were not left in penury, and it is still going strong. It is the job of judges to make sure that there is a fair outcome and where there is disparity in income and children are young then the Courts will make sure that a person will not be subject to undue hardship when adjusting to life after marriage.
Changes are afoot however, with one of the leading lights of family law, Mr Justice Mostyn, in a recent case using the opportunity to give a succinct history of the development of the statute and caselaw surrounding spousal maintenance and suggesting that his interpretation of the current law is:
‘A term should be considered by the court unless the payee would be unable to adjust without undue hardship to the ending of the payments. This suggests that Parliament anticipated that a degree of not undue hardship in making the adjustment is acceptable…’
A further proponent of change is Baroness Deech, a family lawyer and former chief of the Bar Standards Board and a member of the House of Lords, who suggests that paying spousal maintenance should be limited to five years, unless to do so would inflict serious financial hardship. She has already criticised the current system suggesting that it teaches young women to ‘go out and find a footballer’. Which might be going a little too far I think.
It is interesting to note that in Scotland there is already a qualifier to awards of spousal maintenance in that it is assumed to be payable for 3 years, again unless to do so would cause financial hardship.
So it seems that whilst reports of the demise of maintenance are premature, there are serious voices calling for reform, and the presumption of a spouse being maintained in the manner to which they have become accustomed by the financially stronger party for the rest of their days is probably under threat.
As ever we will have to wait and see.