21 Jan 2015
Jane Croft and Michael Peel | Financial Times
Some lawyers say that the international dimension has been made even more convoluted by a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that opens the door for wives who have received a paltry settlement after divorcing abroad to come back to the English courts for a better deal. The Supreme Court found in favour of Sikirat Agbaje, a Nigerian woman who took her case to the UK courts after disputing the divorce settlement she was awarded in Nigeria when her 38-year marriage ended. Agbaje, who has lived in Hertfordshire for some years and has dual British and Nigerian citizenship, was awarded £275,000 – just over a third of the couple’s total assets and almost three times what her husband had been ordered to give her by the Nigerian courts.
Once again, argument raged over whether the English divorce courts were taking an admirable role in ensuring fairness – or whether judicial activism was going too far.
For all the contentious judgments hitting the headlines, one of the first things to strike anyone making closer acquaintance with the intimate world of English divorce law is how many disputes are resolved by large confidential payouts. Frances Hughes, the no-nonsense lawyer for Tchenguiz’s husband Vivian Imerman and the co-founder of boutique law firm Hughes Fowler Carruthers, says the public sees only the “tip of the iceberg” of big-money disputes. She reckons 95 per cent of her cases are settled privately, with more than three-quarters of them involving at least one foreign national. Her lower-end cases involve assets in the range of £5m-£10m, while at the top end she acts for billionaires. Asked if she has ever settled a case for more than £100m – more than double the highest-ever court award – she retorts: “Oh yes, and much, much more”.
Like her peers at rival firms, Hughes – a keen viola player who initially intended to focus her legal career on the classical music industry – is eager not to be seen as a gold-digging divorce lawyer feeding on long and acrimonious litigation. Sitting down in a meeting room in her office overlooking Chancery Lane in the heart of legal London, the first thing she does is stress how keen she is to settle cases if possible. It’s a common refrain among her sub-clan of the legal profession, which has its share of feuds but also a minority group’s sense of solidarity. “You know everyone,” says Hughes. “It’s a very small world – it’s like being a lawyer in Dickens’ London.”
Hughes’ office, with a gentleman’s outfitter next door and copies of Vogue and art magazines in its reception, is a world away in atmosphere from the hardcore leading City commercial law practices. The divorce field is dominated by a few larger firms with big family law departments, such as Withers, Manches and Mishcon de Reya, as well as more specialised outfits such as the one run by Mayfair-based Camilla Baldwin, an émigrée from the distinctly less glamorous job of immigration tribunal judge. Rates of leading solicitors at top family law firms are generally thought to be pushing towards the £500-£600-an-hour mark – although the lawyers themselves would point to the risk of non-payment if they end up losing a case for a financially weaker partner seeking more money.
Read the full article in the FT here.