Marilyn Stowe: Nobody wins when couples won’t talk

WE all know that a good headline sells a story, and headlines about the rich and privileged hanging out their dirty laundry in public are bound to make most of us sit up and take notice.

The recent case of Field v Field is a case in point. Former Russian beauty queen Ekaterina Parfenova Fields’ marriage to US lawyer Richard Fields collapsed after nine years, in which time they had two children.

She demanded a lump sum of £2.6m and £500,000 a year to keep her and her children in the style to which they were accustomed in Kensington. Her husband countered with a £2.2m lump sum offer and £230,000 a year, and dared to suggest she try living in Battersea where it’s cheaper.

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To most of us, these are big sums of money whichever side of the fence you are on, but the wife wasn’t happy with the offer and the legal sparring continued to the extent that they racked up £1.2m in legal fees out of a pot of £6m.

Mr Justice Holman admonished the couple for their “unedifying” dispute
 and had urged them to sit down and have a serious discussion on a settlement. They couldn’t do that, so the High Court has eventually awarded Mrs Fields a £1.2m lump sum and £320,000 a year, plus an extra £50,000 annually for the children. She got the property in Kensington and he kept the Manhattan apartment.

So who should we feel sorry for – her, him, both or neither? When it comes to spousal maintenance, the court’s primary concern is on addressing reasonable needs. She obviously thought her 
needs were greater than the judge did, and he ruled accordingly, so she didn’t get the level of payment she had been arguing for.

At the same time, the judge kicked the husband’s idea that she should move to Battersea into touch, by saying that the award reflected that there was a limit to how far she could “reasonably be expected to move from the centre,” since that’s where she’d been based in London. Hence the Kensington property.

Several things strike me about this case. One is that perhaps she would have got an award closer to her wishes if they had a sensible discussion about reasonable needs for them and their children, instead of arguing and frittering away over a fifth of their financial pot on unnecessary legal fees.

The other thing that’s interesting is that it runs counter to a lot of headlines claiming London is the divorce capital of the world. But here is a judge more 
or less saying: “For goodness sake, it would be so much easier if you just talked to each other.”

One more pertinent point that strikes me is that we have heard a lot recently about men getting the rough end of 
the stick when it comes to the family court in the UK.

Apparently a US firm taking men-only cases is opening up in London to take up cudgels in this cause. At the same time, a study just out from the University of Warwick and University of Reading found that men are not discriminated against in the family court. The study looked at child contact applications and found that men were just as likely to have a contact application approved as women.

You might say that contact applications and divorce settlements are different things, but in my mind they are on the same continuum of family court business. If we can say that men aren’t discriminated against when it comes to contact with their children, it would seem fair to say that they’re probably not discriminated against when it comes to maintenance payouts either. And if that’s the case, there is no need for men-only law firms in London.

It is food for thought. Reasonable need might be a difficult concept, but people need to remember that it’s “need” and not “want”. By arguing, Mrs Fields actually finished up getting less than her husband’s original counter offer.

So US lawyer Mr Fields didn’t get hard done to by the courts in London and 
an apartment in Manhattan is a nice thing to keep, especially given that he lives in Miami.

Mr Justice Holman said that “this is a case which should have been very easy to settle”. I couldn’t agree more, and all I can say is that if possible you should always try to talk it out and come to a mutual agreement, otherwise, whether you’re
the husband or the wife, you might discover that the assets you thought you had have disappeared between one argument and the next, and at that point, nobody wins.

Marilyn Stowe is senior partner with Yorkshire-based Stowe Family Law. All figures are taken from media reports on the day of the judgement.