EU may separate from old divorce laws

Judge's gavel and wedding bands

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: Next week member states of the European Union are meeting to discuss divorce reform. Divorce can be ugly no matter where it takes place, but breaking-up in England is particularly hard to do. Divorce laws there are decades old. Prenups aren't even recognized by the courts, but if love's not in the air -- change is.

From London, Geoff Brumfiel reports.


GEOFF BRUMFIEL: Twenty years ago two characters on the popular British soap opera "EastEnders" shocked the nation by getting a divorce.

EASTENDERS CLIP: This, my sweet, is a letter from my solicitor telling you that your husband has filed a petition for divorce. It also tells you to get yourself a solicitor pretty damn quick.

British television has come a long way since then. The country's divorce laws, on the other hand, haven't changed since 1973. Prenuptial agreements, now common in many countries, aren't considered legally binding in England. That's because of the government's traditional attitude towards marriage, according to Pauline Fowler, a divorce lawyer at Hughes Fowler Carruthers, a London firm.

PAULINE FOWLER: Old-fashioned view of it was that it was against public policy to encourage people to try to have an agreement before they got married, because they somehow regarded that as being anti-marriage.

Instead it's up to judges to decide how to split up the assets. They have such wide latitude that even divorce lawyers can't predict what will happen. James Pirrie, with Family Law in Partnership, says couples often spend $80,000 or more, each, to settle a case.

JAMES PIRRIE: Nobody knows what the court's going to do. It's a tragedy. I mean even people who are doing these cases for a long time don't know, so if you line up four divorce lawyers you'll get at least six different answers.

For the rich, the problem gets worse. Not only do the courts not enforce prenups, but judges consider all the assets of each partner, not just those gained during the marriage. That's earned London a new and unwelcome title: "divorce capital of the world."

JEREMY LEVISON: Anybody wishing to maximize their potential divorce entitlement will try and ensure that it is dealt with in the courts of London.

Jeremy Levison handles the divorces of rock stars, executives and anyone willing to pay his $840-an-hour rate. He says these days settlements often run into the tens of millions of dollars. In many cases one or both spouses are foreigners, and that leads to a frantic race. The wife, and it often is a woman, will rush to file in London while the husband seeks to settle the case in another country. It's called "forum shopping."

LEVISON: We love these forum shop cases. They're interesting and they're fascinating. They're great fun, and yeah, the bottom of the line they're very lucrative for us to deal with.

But the location game might be coming to an end. London's courts are clogged and sorting out couples' finances can easily take over a year. So judges are beginning to use prenuptial contracts as a guide for divvying up assets, according to Fowler.

FOWLER: I think there is a shift towards honoring prenups. I don't think anybody's quite made the leap yet to honor them, but there is certainly a shift.

In the absence of new divorce laws prenups could be the only way to bring order to billionaire breakups. Again James Pirrie.

PIRRIE: Some of the figures that we see going through the courts I'm going why are you doing this? You know you're not going to get through 10 million in the rest of your life, so why are we fighting over the last eight? You know? Never mind.

You know it's time for a change when even divorce lawyers are getting fed up.

In London, I'm Geoff Brumfiel for Marketplace

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