How does divorce look for those in the public eye?18th February 2020 - Published by Madelaine Hailey
Divorce is a deeply personal issue for all parties involved and, as it is a matter of public record, this is often exacerbated for couples who have high profiles, or are in the public eye.
Following the announcement of a second royal divorce in the space of a week, family law associate Madelaine Hailey looks at the practicalities of divorce for high profile couples.
Public v private
In the same way a marriage, that a birth or a death is a matter of public record, so is a divorce. It is therefore not possible to divorce completely “off the record”, so individuals with a public profile will need to consider how they are going to approach the potential publicity around their divorce at an early stage of the process.
The recent announcements of the divorces of the Queen’s grandson Peter Phillips and the Earl of Snowdon have been carefully timed and issued following full consultation and advice. It is not uncommon for those in the public eye to take charge of the situation by issuing their own statement, on their own terms, before their circumstances are discovered and brought to public attention whether they like it or not.
So how do the press obtain details of a divorce without prior notification?
Although much of the divorce process is dealt with on paper, the pronouncement of the Decree Nisi takes place in open court. At the start of each day, the court will display lists detailing which judges will be hearing which cases, in which court room and at what time. Those cases which are to be heard in private, for example matters relating to children, will be listed only with their unique case reference number, which would mean very little to anybody other than those involved in the case. For divorce cases however, the parties’ names will be listed together with the case number.
In certain courts – notably including the Central Family Court – journalists are regularly in attendance looking out for any notable names or cases which are coming before the court on a given day. Therefore, when the Decree Nisi of a famous individual is on the list, this is usually where the press will pick up on the divorce if they have not already been made aware. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has very recently found his divorce from Marina Wheeler QC back in the public eye as a result of this tactic.
Although divorce itself is a matter of public record, not all evidence filed in relation to it is available to the press or to the public. The divorce petition, which sets out the finer details of the Petitioner’s case for divorce, is not available to anybody other than the parties, their advisors and the court staff. Other documents produced during the divorce process are however available to those who request them. They include the application for Decree Nisi, statement in support, the Decree Nisi and the Decree Absolute.
Supporting those in the public eye during the divorce process
Divorce is deeply personal to the parties involved. Unwanted press intrusion can compound private distress and there can be a fine line between what is in the public interest, and what the public may find interesting.
We advise our high profile clients to implement a multi-disciplinary approach, comprising of lawyers, financial advisors and PR advisors. The input of trusted advisors should always be obtained and all professionals involved should be following the same strategy.
In financial proceedings, it is possible to apply to exclude the press from any hearings and/or to restrict what they are able to publish in relation to what is disclosed and discussed during hearings at which they are present. This can be an important tool not only for those with a public or “celebrity” profile but also for those with sensitive business interests, such as where a floatation is being contemplated.
If high profile individuals can avoid court altogether in relation to financial matters, then this will ensure maximum privacy. Private Financial Dispute Resolutions Hearings are becoming increasingly common and there continues to be a big policy drive toward arbitration, collaborative law and other alternative forms of dispute resolution.
Questions have recently been raised around society’s appetite to examine every aspect of the private lives of those with a public profile, and how press reporting may change as a result of recent events. While there will remain a legitimate need for independent press reporting, in reality, the unhappy marriage of a high profile couple is unlikely to have any implications whatsoever for the general public. Those individuals should feel as able to endure the process with the same dignity, privacy & respect as the tens of thousands of other individuals also getting divorced each year, without the added pressure of public scrutiny.
If you are a high net worth individual who is thinking about starting the divorce process, please get in touch with our specialist family team on 0161 838 8146 or contact us here.