The judgment of Bennett J is probably not a landmark, in terms of new law, but will undoubtedly be the most discussed and debated pronouncement of the courts in 2008. His Lordship reached some notable conclusions, not only on matters of family law, but also on issues of privacy and celebrity.

Privacy

Privacy amongst those in the public eye is perhaps now to be seen as a relative matter. It is worth noting, however, that the Court of Appeal recently reinstated the privacy claim brought by author J K Rowling on behalf of her toddler son, David, who, it ruled, had a reasonable expectation of privacy whilst being pushed down an Edinburgh high street in a buggy by his parents. The McCartney hearing was held in private. It discussed intimate financial and personal details and, in future, until the law is changed, financial hearings will continue to be heard in private. The public did not therefore get to hear the evidence placed before the court. The judgment, however, which was made public the day after it was handed down, was sufficiently detailed that readers will have been in no doubt about what the judge thought of Heather Mills McCartney and the way in which she presented her case. This level of ‘publicity’ is something that many litigants would find disturbing. As many people will know, there was a link to the official judgment on the BBC website, so members of the public did not need to look far to find a copy.

Distribution of assets after divorce and maintenance

Bennett J seems to have accepted the argument that, because of the shortness of the marriage and the absence of any substantial contribution by Heather to Paul’s wealth, her award ought to be determined by reference to her ‘needs’, as generously assessed. In fact, because her case was so badly argued, what she got was not especially generous. Accordingly, Sir Paul benefited because: 

  • the majority of his wealth was pre-acquired; 
  • there was little or no pre-marriage cohabitation; 
  • during the marriage he kept his finances largely separate (had he transferred large sums into joint names inevitably the outcome would have been different); and 
  • given his huge wealth, their standard of living had been comparatively modest. Bennett J noted that Sir Paul lived a quiet life, did not eat out a lot, and sent the children from his marriage to Linda to state schools. He ‘added back in’ £500,000 of excessive spending by Heather.

When capitalising Heather’s income stream, Bennett J took account of both Heather’s own earning capacity and also the fact that she could ‘trade down’ when Beatrice was older. She received £3,000,000 less than she would have done on a full capitalisation calculation. In addition, the level of child maintenance was comparatively modest given Sir Paul’s fortune – £35,000 per annum plus the cost of a nanny.