Divorce Law Reforms Set to Favour Women with No Income; Pressure Is Growing for an Equal Split of Assets to Reward Homemakers

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Byline: STEPHEN WOMACK

PRESSURE is growing for an overhaul of antiquated divorce laws.

Changes could lead to more generous settlements for non-earners, usually women. The likely outcome is that couples' assets will be split 50:50 on divorce.

Recent changes to the law in England and Wales have already made it easier to divide pension funds between divorcing partners.

Now demands are growing for more reform to make it crystal clear how other assets should be split between a husband and wife.

James Harcus, a senior partner in family law with London solicitor Withers, says: 'At the moment there is no set formula for calculating how much a wife or husband should get. The court has wide discretion and very wide powers in this area.

'I feel this discretion is too high a price to pay. The potential for dispute between husband and wife can give rise to huge legal costs. While the mega-rich might be able to afford a protracted legal fight, 95 per cent of the population cannot afford it. And the uncertainty around settlement makes divorces hugely stressful.'

Britain heads the divorce league in the European Union with a rate four times higher than Italy and three times that in France, Spain and Greece.

There were 158,700 divorces in Britain in 1999 compared with 301,000 weddings.

The growing campaign for reform has been fuelled by two recent court cases in which divorcing women successfully argued for a much greater share of their wealthy husbands' money.

Last month, Jacqueline Cowan, ex-wife of Michael Cowan, won a bigger share of the [pound]12 million fortune he made from originating the black plastic bin liner.

The Court of Appeal backed her claim for greater recognition in raising two children while he was building up a successful business.

The court awarded her more than [pound]1 million extra, raising her share to [pound]4.4 million, but it stopped short of a 50:50 split. The judges felt Cowan's business skills deserved the lion's share.

Last October, Pamela White won the backing of the Law Lords for a more generous settlement from former husband Martin. She received [pound]1.5 million, about 40 per cent of what was left after legal fees.

Previously, the courts based divorce settlements only on a wife's 'reasonable requirements'. This often left women with a tiny fraction of their husband's assets.

Solicitor Jackie Wells, a divorce specialist with Taylor Vintners in Cambridge, says: 'It was a bit of a lottery how the courts interpreted a woman's reasonable requirements. …