Go and get a job? The case for and against Tracey Wright

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Go and get a job? The case for and against Tracey Wright

09 Mar 2015

The divorce case of Tracey Wright has hit headlines hard recently after a judge told her that she simply needed to ‘go and get a job’.

Tracey and her ex-husband Ian divorced in 2008 after 11 years of marriage, having had two children together. Initially, Tracey was awarded half the proceeds from the sale of the former matrimonial house, which allowed her to buy a new £450,000 home, mortgage–free, as well as receiving an annual maintenance of £75,000 (£32,000 of which was to be used for her personal upkeep). Mr Wright protested against this joint lives maintenance order, claiming that he would be unable to fund his ex-wife’s lavish lifestyle after his retirement, which he anticipates will occur in five years’ time.

In a judgement that has got everyone talking, Lord Justice Pitchford agreed with Mr Wright and told Mrs Wright to get a job. This ruling has seemingly divided the nation, with some feeling sorry for Mrs Wright and others stating that it’s about time the law stopped treating women as victims. Below we set out arguments for and against this landmark decision and consider whether an equitable ruling has been made.

‘Team Ian’

The definition of ‘adapt’ is ‘to become adjusted to new conditions’. This is something that Mrs Wright should have done back in 2008 when her marriage to Mr Wright came to an end. Despite the fact they had initially agreed that Mrs Wright would be the home-maker and Mr Wright would be the money-maker, these terms were only in relation to the couple’s marriage. It should be obvious that once the terms of their relationship changed then the terms of the above arrangement would have to change too.

Mrs Wright and so many women in her position try to claim vulnerability by arguing that they have stunted their career progression by staying at home, and by claiming that they would lose out further if they then had to clamber back onto the career ladder after divorce. However, this point of view does not take into account that both parties suffer from the terms of such an arrangement having to change. After all, the breadwinner who was previously taken care of by the home-maker has to adapt to juggle the house-work and their job, and for this reason the home-maker should also have to adapt to include work as part of their day-to-day life.

Before giving up work, Mrs Wright was a legal secretary and a riding instructor. Whilst it understandably may take her some time to get back into the swing of either professions, there is no doubt that she would be able to do so relatively quickly. It is also worth noting that the Wrights’ oldest child is in boarding school, whilst their youngest is in full-time education. Both of Mrs Wright’s former careers could be done on a part-time basis and there is therefore nothing preventing her from working during school hours. Should Mrs Wright prefer to embark on an entirely different career path, then she has the fortunate position of there being enough money available for her to retrain. This would enable her to have the career she wants, as well as allowing her to become financially independent.

Mrs Wright should certainly have the option of not working; however, she must appreciate that within this new chapter of her life, not working will result in her having a much lower standard of living. Once again, she needs to adapt to the situation at-hand and make career choices based on the fact that she is no longer married to a millionaire.

Whilst financial ties will remain between the Wrights’ in relation to their children, Mrs Wright should have attempted to make herself as independent as possible. With this in mind, it seems that Lord Justice Pitchford was correct in stating that Mrs Wright had made no effort to seek work or update her skills and has been working on the basis that she would be supported for life. By stating that it is imperative that she starts work now, Lord Justice Pitchford is simply trying to guide Mrs Wright into a position that will empower her in the long-term and will allow her to live an independent, self-sufficient lifestyle. Lord Justice Pitchford’s judgement is not about neglecting women’s needs at all, but rather empowering them to see that there can be life after divorce.

‘Team Tracey’

The main problem with the Wright ruling isn’t so much the idea that women should not rely on their ex-husband’s for spousal maintenance, but rather the fact that this case was the one chosen to make such a point, when the facts of it simply don’t lend themselves to such a decision. Many cases have passed through the courts over the years where judges have reminded us that discrimination must not occur against the home-maker. This has resulted in extremely generous awards being presented to stay-at-home mothers, and has even led to the UK being referred to as ‘the divorce capital of the world’. Many have claimed that such awards send women the wrong message, with Baroness Deech stating that women are taught that, once they get married, they never have to work. As a result of this, it appears that the court decided a stand had to be made to prevent women presuming they could claim a ‘meal ticket for life’, and this stand came in the form of the Wright judgement.

However, it is odd that a case involving a 51-year-old women was the one chosen to make such a point. After all, cases such as A v A (financial provision)* have stated that it would be inequitable to require women of 45 to find a full-time job, even when they hold degrees. Yet here we have a woman nearing the age of retirement being told to get a job – and the discrepancy seems to be more about the judges making a point and less about them having considered the specific facts of this case.

A further issue with the ruling stems from the fact that it paints Mrs Wright out to have an aura of self-entitlement, which she allegedly does not deserve to have. However, it can be argued that it is in fact Mr Wright who appears self-entitled, as he wishes to have his cake and eat it too. No doubt the decision for Mrs Wright to forgo work and stay at home was one made by both parties, and this decision enabled Mrs Wright to support her then-husband so that he could climb the career ladder. It is only with the support of his ex-wife that Mr Wright has been able to become one of the country’s leading vets, yet he now wishes to abandon their initial arrangement and get on with his life post-marriage. Yet the same is not necessarily possible for Mrs Wright, who, having taken over a decade out of the working world, cannot simply swan back into it and demand a job that could afford her the same type of lifestyle that she grew used to during the marriage – which, coincidently, is a very important factor for consideration under S25(2)(c) MCA 1973.

Lord Justice Pitchford makes reference to the fact that Mrs Wright has an earning capacity and therefore a responsibility to earn; however, this seems to miss the point. Plenty of home-makers have an earning capacity, but that does not necessarily mean that working would be the best way for them to utilise their time. The fact that Mrs Wright may be capable of securing a job does not mean that it is appropriate for her to do so, given the arrangement her and her ex-husband made. As mentioned before, his part of the ‘deal’ has allowed him to climb the career ladder, whilst Mrs Wright has stunted any potential career progression. Despite the fact that the marriage is over, the detrimental results of the arrangement to Mrs Wright’s career progression are permanent and a joint lives maintenance order is the only way to reflect this.

Lastly, Lord Justice Pitchford stated in his judgement that mothers with children over seven should be working. The main question being why seven is the magic number? His reasoning is likely to be based on the fact that, at this age, children become a little more independent; however, this should be irrelevant. If a couple had decided whilst married that the stay-at-home party should return to work when their child reached a certain age, this would be one thing; however, if the arrangement was that the home-maker should remain at home indefinitely, then this should not have to change if the marriage ends in divorce.

Upsettingly, the law’s attempt to promote gender equality by stating that women (who are more frequently the home-makers) should be able to support themselves through jobs after divorce will actually result in further inequality. This is because, realistically, it will still be the home-maker-turned-worker who will take primary responsibility for the children, struggling to balance work and school collections, as well as having to take days off work when the children are ill. The other party, however, will likely continue to work undisturbed. If the law is really trying to promote equality, judges should ensure that childcare responsibilities are shared equally when both parties are going to be working.

Which Wright is right?

Ultimately, it seems that there are several very valid points in relation to both sides of the argument. Whilst an agreement had been made during the marriage, and the sacrifices made by Mrs Wright must be acknowledged, the law must also recognise the fact that the marriage has now ended and therefore circumstances have changed. Commenting on the judgement, Kuits family team state: “The benefits of the objectives behind The Divorce (Family Provisions) Bill, as discussed in our previous article can certainly be highlighted by the Wright case. The Bill, which was introduced by Baroness Deech seeks to limit maintenance payments to three years. In this time, ex-spouses who took the role of home-maker in their marriage would have time to readjust, so that when the time comes for their maintenance payments to be terminated, they would be equipped to become financially independent and ready to enjoy life after divorce. Perhaps this ‘middle ground’ approach is the best way forward for all.”

*[1998] 2 FLR 180

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