The Independent

Divorcee wins 10m award in victory for the homemaker

By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent
The Independent
15 November 2002

For 23 year Shan Lambert thought of herself as an ordinary wife married to an extraordinary rich man.

She cooked the meals, brought up the couple's two children and comforted her husband after he came home from a hard day at the office.

The Court of Appeal said yesterday that this entitled her to a half share of her husband's £20m fortune in a ruling which strikes a blow for women who feel their contribution to marriage has been undervalued.

The case also helps answer the questioned posed by Mrs Lambert's QC earlier this year: "What is a marriage?"

Lord Justice Thorpe, one of the country's leading family judges, said yesterday that it no longer meant the breadwinner's contribution took priority over the homemaker's. His ruling, one of the biggest settlements in English legal history, gives equal rights to wives married to wealthy husbands.

The Lamberts married long before Harry Lambert, 58, made his fortune. He was an advertising rep who became chairman of the Adscene group, a Kent-based free newspaper chain, which was eventually sold for more than £75m.

As the marriage evolved, Shan Lambert took on the running of the family home as well as finding time to have a non-executive role on the Adscene board. But after two decades the marriage floundered with Mr Lambert leaving his wife for an Italian lover.

In his attempt to keep hold of his fortune he argued that he had set up the company nine months before he met his wife and its success was due to his initiative and drive alone.

But Mrs Lambert, 50, counter-claimed that she had contributed to the success of the business in supporting her husband as his wife and a mother to their children.

No one could argue that Mrs Lambert had suffered financially since her marriage ended.

Last year she was awarded the marital home, an old country house called Ringleton Manor, near Sandwich, Kent, worth £1.4m together with the accompanying Ringleton Lodge, worth £250,000. She was also allowed to keep assets of £2.8m and was given a lump sum of more than £3m.

But three Court of Appeal judges yesterday increased her lump sum to £5,751,474 or whatever sum is necessary to ensure she had a half share of the wealth created during the marriage.

In his lead judgment, Lord Justice Thorpe said: "There must be an end to the sterile assertion that the breadwinner's contribution weighs heavier than the homemaker's."

Mrs Lambert's legal victory also means that her former husband will almost certainly end up paying both sides' legal fees, estimated at £1m.

Divorce lawyers said the case would change the way the courts viewed the worth of a wife's contribution to her husband's business.

Nigel Shepherd, former national chairman of the Solicitors' Family Law Association, described it as a "sea change" in divorce law.

"The courts have been looking at ways in which it would be right to say, 'you shouldn't get half' ... But with equality the courts have now caught up with society – one can't argue with the logic of non-discrimination."

But another lawyer suggested the ruling might be seen as a gold-digger's charter. One solicitor said: "Some would say it's not fair to Mr Lambert, who was the one who actually made the £20m."

Keith Schilling, the solicitors representing Mrs Lambert, said that his client had fought for equality and had won the £10m she was seeking.

He said all she had ever wanted was a fair share of what she was entitled to. "Earlier rulings," he said, "left her feeling that her contribution had been undervalued. This case is a historic decision which eliminates discrimination in divorce. It is a long overdue reform."

He added: "The decision of the Court of Appeal recognises that a wife's (or husband's) role in looking after the home and family and supporting her husband in a demanding business will no longer be regarded as less valuable than the role of the successful businessman (or businesswoman)."

Not all wives married to such rich men have been so successful in court.

A year ago the former wife of a binliner tycoon, who wanted half of their £12m fortune, was told by the law lords she would have to make do with her £4.4m divorce settlement

Like Mrs Lambert, Jacqueline Cowan, 61, also argued that she deserved an equal share because of her hard work and devotion throughout 35 years of marriage.

Despite her unequal share of the assets, lawyers consider that Mrs Cowan was the first to benefit from a House of Lords judgment two years ago which revolutionised the division of wealth on divorce by rating wives' domestic contributions equally with husbands' work outside the home. It overturned the rule that the wives of rich men should be entitled to only enough for their "reasonable requirements".

Even so, the Court of Appeal judges, including Lord Justice Thorpe, argued that Mr Cowan should retain 62 per cent of his assets because of the "special or exceptional skill and efforts" he had shown in building up his wealth. Last year the House of Lords agreed. Lord Justice Thorpe modified his reasoning to fit the new facts yesterday. He said recent divorce case rulings had shown that it was unacceptable to place a greater value on the contribution of the breadwinner than that of the homemaker as a justification for dividing the product of the breadwinner's efforts unequally between them.

He argued that once the court had found that Mr Lambert's contribution to the business was special, but that he was not a genius, and the wife could not have done more, there was no reason to depart from equality of shares.

And using language which will strike a chord with all wives who choose to sacrifice their own career ambitions to bring up a family, he added: "The more driven the breadwinner the less available he will be physically and emotionally both as a husband and a father."

'There is more scope for wives to go for half'

By Julian Lipson

Shan Lambert argued in court that it was discriminatory to treat her "non-financial" help at home as less important than the financial contributions of her husband – particularly after a long marriage.

In other cases, the Court of Appeal ruled that husbands' and wives' contributions should be treated equally – but always found a reason for giving the wife less.

Usually, judges said the husband's "genius" in making the money justified giving him more. This effectively meant that it was difficult for wives ever to "clock up" enough contribution to justify as much as half.

The court has now rejected that argument.

The fact that a husband has made a lot of money does not alone allow him to claim that he is a financial genius. To do so is regarded as discriminatory.

There is now much more scope for wives to argue for 50 per cent and awards will generally be higher, but there is a cost.

The law is uncertain and the progression of cases since 2000 has shown that there are more legal battles now that the stakes have been upped and the settlements increased.

Giving 50 per cent to Mrs Lambert has also presented a new dilemma. If a non-working wife can get 50 per cent, what happens to the wife who has raised the children and earned all the money? Does she get 60 per cent?

In the Lambert case, the court has told us that it is inappropriate in most cases to give husbands and wives "marks" for their marital contributions at the end of a marriage. The difficulty is that when one takes away the need to assess contribution, what is left?

Perhaps now there is no need for the wife and the husband to compete for their shares. There are, however, opposing opinions.

Some say that making the money should count for more than supporting the maker of the money. Mrs Lambert, obviously, does not hold this opinion.

Julian Lipson is a solicitor specialising in family law at Withers LLP

Expensive fall-outs

* In a landmark ruling in October 2000 the House of Lords awarded Pamela White 41 per cent of her husband's wealth, or £1.5m, to account for her role during their 30-year marriage.

* In May 2001 the Court of Appeal increased a divorce settlement for Jacqueline Cowan, 61, the wife of a binliner tycoon to £4.4m. The judges ruled that her contribution to family life entitled her to homes in Hertfordshire and Florida.

* In the United States, Jocelyn Wildenstein, otherwise known as the Bride of Wildenstein, was awarded one of the biggest divorce settlements from her billionaire art dealer husband Alec. After a long legal battle the Supreme Court ordered him to pay his wife £90,000 per month in maintenance and an undisclosed lump sum.

2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd