A judge in the United Kingdom has issued a landmark court decision in a divorce case between a millionaire and his ex-wife. Lord Justice Pitchford told mother of two Tracey Wright that divorcees with kids over the age of seven should have to work for a living. Ms Wright had chosen not to work after she and her ex-husband of 11 years divorced in 2008, instead living off a lavish payment schedule initially granted to her in the divorce.
Divorce lawyers in the UK believe that the case will have a major impact on future cases. Mr Wright was initially required to pay his ex-wife approximately $115,000 a year for maintenance and school fees, but he sought and won a reduction to $50,000 annually. Mr Wright argued that it was unfair to be expected to support his ex-wife financially, even after he was retired, while she made no effort whatsoever to work.
The court judge told Ms Wright to “just get on with it” and find a job “like vast numbers of other women with children.” Lord Justice Pitchford denied her request for an appeal. A previous judge in the case had agreed with that sentiment, arguing that “I do not think the children will suffer if Mrs Wright has to work, and indeed a working mother at this stage of their lives may well provide them with a good role model. It is possible to find work that fits in with childcare responsibilities. I reject her other reasons relating to responsibilities for animals, or trees, or housekeeping.”
Lord Justice Pitchford reiterated that it is now “imperative that the wife go out to work and support herself. The time had come to recognize that, at the time of his retirement, the husband should not be paying spousal maintenance. There is a general expectation that, once children are in year two, mothers can begin part-time work and make a financial contribution”.
Ayesha Vardag, President of Vardags Divorce Lawyers, commented on the case to the London Evening Standard, said: “This reflects a shift in the zeitgeist towards mothers being expected to get back into the workplace after divorce. In a needs case, there’s no gravy train for life. The reality is that parents work now, male and female, and everyone’s supposed to pull their weight as soon as possible. Unless the family’s swimming in millions, the luxury of the stay-at-home Mummy is fast being confined to history.”
The Guardian weighed in on the controversial decision with a surprising opinion saying “A judge telling a divorcee to get a job is a triumph for women’s rights.”
Just as well. This is a case that really forces you to work out what kind of feminist you are. There’s a school of thought that would argue the wife’s interests should be protected because “she’s a woman and she has rights”. That is one kind of feminism, looking after “women’s interests”. But it can be read the opposite way. Treating a person as a special-case victim (in a situation where no crime has been committed), is the opposite of feminism. This isn’t even about individual cases, which basically deal with the apportioning of cash and assets between two individuals who have become too angry and disillusioned to decide on these things between themselves. No, it’s about a point of principle. And this is where this case has wider ramifications.
This case provides an opportunity to say what’s obvious: it’s wrong to expect someone else to support you for life when the terms of the relationship change. I would go further and say that it’s not a great idea (or a feminist one) to enter into a relationship on those terms in the first place.
It’s one thing for parents to make trade-offs – personal, political, financial – as a short-term option. It’s quite another to expect those trade-offs to last for life, even when a relationship fails. I can envisage – but not advocate – a situation where a woman devotes herself to her husband’s career and the family, sacrificing her own earning power. Or vice versa, when a man sacrifices himself for his wife. Equal opportunities tomfoolery, please. But to do this, like many decisions in life, is a huge gamble. And you can’t expect a court of law to guarantee your winnings. Instead, go to a jobs website and put “riding instructor” in the search box.