Marilyn Stowe: Curious affair of Ashley Madison hack

IT has been hard to escape news stories about the Ashley Madison hack in recent days.

The Canada-based dating site famously targets married men and women, and those in committed relationships, with the slogan Life is short – have an affair.

Last month the site fell victim to a large scale hack by an unidentified group apparently called the ‘Impact Team’. Gigabytes of customer data were stolen and the group threatened to release these onto the web if the site was not immediately shut down.

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Of course, Ashley Madison remained online and the hackers have since followed through with their threat, leaking the stolen data in instalments. Anyone can now log onto certain sites and search for their own significant others. Are their names out there, hiding amongst all those compromising acres of data?

Of course the media were delighted. It is perfect fuel for a story – sex, betrayal, infidelity, nefarious hackers lurking in the shadows. The overexcited reports have come thick and fast, reaching perhaps their acme in a story that two Australian DJs told a listener live on air that they had found her husband’s name in the stolen database. “Are you freaking kidding me?!” she asked them before hanging up. Unsurprisingly the pair were castigated on Twitter for their stunt.

We have been contacted by several media organisations over the last few days, all wanting to know our own thoughts and reaction to the situation. Has Christmas come early for divorce lawyers? Have we been flooded with enquiries from betrayed spouses? Have we perhaps been combing the data ourselves, fishing for potential clients? Have we been ambulance chasing?

We have disappointed a few journalists with our honest answers to those questions, which are I don’t think so, no, no and no.

Other lawyers it seems have been more willing to play the game. I saw one in a recent article reporting three enquiries a day from betrayed partners. But that has simply not been our experience – and we are the largest family law firm in the country, with eight offices nationwide.

All my experience tells me that when a relationship begins to break down, consulting a family lawyer generally comes quite late in the day. Before that, one or both parties will go through all the familiar stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining and so on. Consulting a lawyer generally comes right at the end of this process, at the ‘acceptance’ stage.

So I just can’t see lawyers receiving a flood of enquiries just yet. Any spouses who do discover an Ashley Madison-enabled betrayal will most likely have a lot of talking to do and tears to shed before they dial that number.

Of course, the mere discovery of a name does not prove that adultery actually took place. But any spouses who do file after such a discovery will most likely claim ‘unreasonable behaviour’ – one of the five facts which can be used under English law to establish the ‘irretrievable breakdown’ of a marriage. Unreasonable behaviour, perhaps the most commonly cited, is defined under the Matrimonial Causes Act as a situation in which “the [person’s spouse] has behaved in such a way that the [person who filed the divorce] cannot reasonably be expected to live with [them]”.

When the media turns its collective spotlight on a topic, a certain momentum can be established. To say something is media hype does not mean it has no reality. When Divorce Day – the supposed annual post-Christmas rush to consult a family solicitor – first began it was largely a media creation but over time it seemed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nowadays we really do field a flood of enquiries in the first week of January.

I suspect the same thing will happen here. Men and women who may never even have heard of Ashley Madison before will start to wonder as the media reports continue.

Some will log onto the leaked database, out of curiosity or suspicion, and some of those will in turn make an unwelcome discovery. And some of those in turn will file for divorce. But by then the media train will have moved on.

Marilyn Stowe is a divorce lawyer at Harrogate-based Stowe Family Law.