The perceived generosity of English judges in big money divorce cases has made the UK the venue of choice for some – but anathema for others. However, as one case showed, judicial priorities have more to do with fairness than finance.
The case concerned a Swiss-born billionaire businessman, much of whose wealth derived from his father. Prior to his marriage to his British wife, the couple signed a pre-marital agreement that sought to protect his family property from any future financial claims she might make if the marriage ended in divorce. She alleged that she had been given no choice but to sign the document.
The couple were together for 18 years and had two children before the marriage broke down. The wife launched a divorce petition in London, shortly before the husband did the same in Switzerland. In those circumstances, the husband applied for a stay of the wife's petition on the basis that Switzerland was clearly the more appropriate forum for the proceedings.
In ruling on the issue, the High Court noted that, although the wife said that she wished to make her home in England, she had been living in Switzerland for 11 years with the children, only spending about 30 nights a year in this country. She was therefore neither resident nor domiciled in England, and the English courts would have no jurisdiction to consider her petition unless she moved back to this country.
The Court observed that there was no doubt that a Swiss judge would uphold the full force of the pre-marital agreement, but noted that it did not restrict the wife's right to maintenance. Her argument that an English judge would more fairly assess her financial needs really amounted to a statement that she was likely to fare better were the divorce heard in England.
The wife had issued her petition unilaterally, without giving notice to the husband, and the Court rejected arguments that she would be denied substantial justice in Switzerland. In those circumstances, the Court stayed the English proceedings and directed that they should stand dismissed on finalisation of the Swiss divorce.