Divorced wives do not deserve maintenance for life, but our marital laws need an urgent overhaul

Janet Street-Porter
London is the divorce capital of the world: Getty

Divorce is a costly battleground, and our antiquated laws aren’t fit for purpose. No wonder marriage continues to decline in popularity. At the moment, our judicial system still entertains the ludicrous concept of blame, where one side has to take responsibility for a breakdown.

The people who profit from this mess are lawyers, and the results are not just protracted and expensive, but cruel. Recently, a woman whose 39-year marriage was described as “loveless” was refused a divorce, because neither side was prepared to be named as “guilty”. This week, she lost her case in Court of Appeal, a ruling which was branded "disgraceful".

Maintenance is another minefield – why should divorce entitle a former wife to an income for life? Expecting to be supported long after any children have finished their education seems to be asking for special treatment. Yet most judges (men) seem to think that women need help, and should be allowed to live in the manner to which they had been accustomed.

I wonder why successive governments are so reluctant to reform divorce laws? The last attempt failed in the 1990s. Who are MPs frightened of offending? Modernising marriage and divorce would be the single most beneficial change we could make for future generations.

To ensure the institution of marriage is more attractive, it must be treated like a simple contractual arrangement, where the terms of separation, division of property and financial arrangements in the event of a breakup are included in the legal document that binds one person with another.

In short, getting married needs to be hard, and splitting up needs to be easier. When a marriage ends, no blame should be attached.

I’m astonished at the lack of knowledge exhibited by most cohabiting couples, even people with giant IQs, who imagine that they are in a better place than married couples. They need to wake up and realise they are living in the legal equivalent of la-la land: should they wish to split up, the process will be fraught with ambiguities and uncertainties.

Many will have to resort to costly legal proceedings to resolve issues relating to property and financial affairs. There will be bitterness and big bills.

We need to take religion, the embarrassing terminology, and the gush out of marriage. It should be fashioned into an institution that works in a modern society with equality laws, a society that treats women not as breeders, home makers or chattels, but as contributing partners in a business.

Unfortunately, some of our top legal experts are at loggerheads over divorce reform. Baroness Deech has introduced a private members bill that has passed two readings in the Lords and now goes to the Commons. It proposes to limit maintenance to three years, except in cases of hardship, in line with most divorces in Scotland, North America and the rest of Europe.

You can see how the legal profession and conservative Christians and religious groups might resist this. London has become the divorce capital of the world as wealthy women seek to fleece their former spouses, asking for obscene amounts of “living” expenses long after hubbie has fled home.

Lord Wilson, a senior law lord, has complained publicly about the concept of blame, saying reform is “long overdue”, and thinks prenuptial agreements should be binding, not something that a divorce judge can chuck out if they consider the terms unfair.

But Lord Wilson also wants couples who have lived together for a long time to have the same legal status as those who are married, which simply adds confusion. He disagrees with Baroness Deech about maintenance, claiming it is “unrealistic” for older wives to have to “fend for themselves”.

What a patronising load of tosh, spouted in the name of chivalry. I accept there are older women of my generation who gave up their careers to bring up children and support their husbands. Some will have gone back to work in middle age, but many will have taken a hit in their earnings or chosen to work part-time.

I don’t see why some could not be encouraged to retrain or be paid to find a way to re-enter the workforce. Perhaps the way forward is to only apply changes in maintenance to new marriages and to means test all those applying for it.

Most modern women I know enter a relationship as an equal and don’t expect to be supported. In fact, more women than ever are the breadwinners.

At the moment, marriage is in danger of becoming an institution favoured by older couples, the wealthy and the middle class. That must change.

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