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Wealthy UK couples avoid divorce court settlements due to media interest

UK couples are increasingly avoiding the courts in divorce cases due to media interest in proceedings, which sees their assets, financial arrangements and other personal details become public, according to a local law firm.

Couples can request reporting restrictions, explains UK firm Hugh James, but are required to alert the media to their application for privacy to give them the opportunity to contest it.

Since 2009 journalists have been able to attend most family law hearings, and last year new rules were introduced that overturned restrictions reporting judgments. Therefore cases may be held before a completely open court, unless there is a specific need to protect the identity of a minor or vulnerable adult.

Recent UK divorce cases that caught the media’s attention include the split of hedge funder Chris Hohn from businesswoman Jamie Cooper-Hohn, which resulted in the largest divorce settlement ever made in an open UK court hearing.

Among the details reported were the couple’s disagreements about their total joint assets. Cooper-Hohn said they had joint assets totaling £849 million, and her ex-husband had further personal assets totaling £872 million. Hohn, on the other hand, said his personal wealth was much lower at £67 million.

Disagreements about the existence of a pet dog were among the other details that came to light.

“Avoiding publicity is definitely more of an issue, and mediation and arbitration are a possible solution,” says Hugh James associate Charlotte Leyshon. “If these routes are less confrontational and more cost-effective than a trial, then that’s a good thing.”

“However, some cases are genuinely intractable. If one party is being unreasonable, then their ex-partner may be forced to settle on unfair terms simply to avoid court. In those circumstances, the threat of publicity becomes a weapon in the negotiation. That is surely not what the move towards greater transparency in family cases was intended to achieve.”

Hugh James adds that for couples wishing to avoid publicity, the choice between a mediated settlement or a trial is complicated by conflicting views amongst the judiciary over the issue of reporting restrictions.
Leyshon adds: “At the moment, the rules around privacy are pot luck – there is no generally accepted principle of what may be reported, and what may not when a privacy application is made.”
By applying for reporting restrictions you run the risk of alerting the media to a potentially interesting trial, when it might otherwise have gone under the radar on a busy week.”

“We have had several attempts to introduce more comprehensive rules to balance the need for transparency with individuals’ legitimate desire for privacy, but we have ended up with patchwork arrangements. It is an area that needs urgent review.” 

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