In the 80s, Norman Tebbit allegedly said that the unemployed should ‘get on their bike’ and find a job. 35 years later, a judge in the case of Wright v Wright  has said something very similar. Perhaps naturally, this hit the headlines in the papers. But is it so surprising? Milton Keynes family solicitor John Egan gives his view on this case involving the issue of maintenance payments.
The financial application before the court on the Wright case involved the wife seeking to vary upwards the maintenance award given to her when the parties initially divorced. In 2008, she had been awarded, amongst other things, £32,000 p.a. from her ex-husband (for life, remarriage or further order). In those proceedings, the judge had indicated that the wife would be expected to make a working contribution towards her own household expenditure.
Before their marriage, the wife had worked as a legal secretary and as an administrator. The husband was now 59 and the wife 51. They had two children aged 16 and 10. At the time of the current hearing, the wife was not working, whilst the husband continued to work as an equine surgeon.
In short, the judge declared that the wife’s maintenance should be scaled down over six years to enable her to improve her earning capacity and she failed in her application. Was that fair?
Related post: You may also be interested in our blog post - The mystery of ex-spouse maintenance.
To be frank, we should now be getting away from the expectation that wives will usually get maintenances from their husbands. There is significantly more equality in society and the workplace now, such that it is not unusual for spouses to earn similar salaries or for wives to earn more than their husbands. The principles of paying maintenance should be applied in the same way.
Furthermore, it is the court’s obligation to consider if it is possible for there to be a clean break between spouses on divorce. What the law says is that whilst considering all the circumstances of a case, the judge must specifically consider the ‘income, earning capacity, property and other financial resources which each of the parties to the marriage has or is likely to have in the foreseeable future, including in the case of earning capacity, any increase in that capacity which it would in the opinion of the court be reasonable to expect a party to the marriage to take steps to acquire. This might involve an in-depth analysis of the skills that a spouse has and the efforts that should be taken to obtain other qualifications and retrain. It might also involve an analysis of the employment market and also health considerations that affect earning capacity. What it does mean is that spouses must do what they can, taking into account other factors such as the age of any dependent children in their care.
However in the Wright case, the judge said that “there is a general expectation in these courts that once a child is in year 2 most mothers can consider part-time work consistent with their obligation to their children.” In short, a spouse should not expect to receive maintenance for life even if it is on the basis of a ‘joint lives order’.
Maintenance orders can be varied upwards as well as downwards and sometimes expunged altogether and a clean break imposed. This approach also means that someone who is working cannot simply give up without being able to justify the reason for doing so. If they do, then the court can impute them to have an earning capacity and make decisions on that basis.
None of this should be particularly shocking or out of sync with what generally society expects. However, it is unlikely to be the last case in which these issues are raised – so make sure you get good advice and the evidence to back up your case – because you now know what the judge is likely to say.