Many people would probably share the disbelief of Dennis North when, last year, he was ordered to pay his first wife, Jean, a further sum of £202,000 having been divorced from her for nearly 30 years.

Dennis and Jean North's marriage ended in 1977 when she left him and their three children for another man. Divorce proceedings followed in 1978 and, in 1981, a financial settlement was reached which provided Jean with a house and an income derived from rents and other properties. Notwithstanding this generous financial provision, as was common at the time, Jean was also awarded what is known as a nominal maintenance order i.e. a sum of 5 pence per annum, essentially as a ‘safety net’. In the intervening years Dennis remarried and his fortunes improved as his business thrived. By 2006 he was enjoying his well earned retirement. To his credit he had also made further voluntary payments to Jean.

Jean was not so successful. In 1999 she moved to Australia and subsequently lost most of her money in poor investments.

In March 2006 Jean applied to the Court to vary the terms of the 1981 settlement. She sought to increase the nominal maintenance order to a substantial sum and, once the increased maintenance had been quantified, an order for a capital sum in lieu of it in exchange for an immediate clean break.

The Judge who first heard Jean's application determined that she was entitled to a sum of £202,000 essentially capitalising an annual amount of £16,500.

Understandably, Dennis decided to appeal the Judge's order and the Court of Appeal has recently given its Judgment.

Lord Justice Thorpe said:

The prodigal former wife cannot hope to turn to a former husband in pursuit of a legal remedy, whatever may be her hope that he might, out of charity, come to her rescue.’

But, even though Dennis was in no way responsible for Jean's misfortune and poor investments, the Court of Appeal did not allow her to leave the Court empty handed. In place of the original judge's order she is now entitled to receive from Dennis the ‘modest award’ of £3,000 per annum.

As Lord Justice May said:

‘The bald case is that she has a need and he can afford it.’

Two important points arise from this unfortunate tale:

  1. the significance of marriage. Notwithstanding the long period between divorce and the court's decision, the Court of Appeal considered that the court's overarching objective must be to achieve an objectively ‘fair’ result. The language of ‘fairness’ in this context stems directly from the marital relationship. During the course of the marriage Jean had contributed to it. The entirety of her claims arising out of the marriage had not been conclusively dealt with in 1981. Jean was therefore entitled to once again approach the court for assistance even though, since separation in 1977 and whilst Dennis had been building up his successful business, she had not attempted to obtain paid employment.
  2. the importance of negotiating a ‘clean break’. Since 1981 there has been a dramatic shift towards encouraging people to be financially independent post divorce but this case dramatically highlights the potential problems when this does not happen. Jean's ‘safety net’ had become Dennis' ‘Sword of Damocles’ eventually falling in quite dramatic fashion. In addition, irrespective of the merits of the case, astronomical sums were spent by Dennis and Jean in pursuing this matter to the Court of Appeal (a figure well in excess of £100,000).