The Guardian has reported on a divorce case where the wife has received half of the assets plus another £400,000 to compensate her ‘relationship – generated disadvantage: giving up work as a solicitor to become primary carer to the parties’ children while the husband pursued his ‘stellar’ career. The article is here.

We don’t have a judgment yet, so there is lots that we do not know about the circumstances.

What is compensation?

Although not mentioned explicitly in the Matrimonial Causes Act, compensation is one of the reasons for distributing the parties’ assets on a divorce, alongside meeting the parties’ needs and equal sharing. Usually, the courts will look at the effect of dividing the parties’ assets equally and then if that doesn’t give one of them enough to meet their needs (living costs, housing costs) they might deviate from 50-50. Compensation doesn’t usually come into it, for reasons I’ll explain, but it comes from judgments in two joined cases, Miller v Miller and McFarlane v McFarlane. Its  purpose is to compensate for future economic differences between the parties that are the result of the way that they conducted their marriage. For example, the wife might have cut her hours at work or given up work entirely to be the primary carer for the parties’ children, and time out has a long-term effect on her earning capacity even if she goes back to work. As Mostyn J noted in SS v NS, ‘for many women the marriage is the defining economic event of their whole lives and the decisions made in it may well reverberate for many years after its ending’. Another example of a relationship-generated disadvantage might be giving up career opportunities to relocate for a spouse’s job. 

In this case, the court awarded the wife £400,000 above an equal division of the assets by way of compensation for relationship-generated disadvantage. She had given up her career to raise their children. The Guardian reports that:

‘The ruling could have implications for other divorce cases in which one partner has stepped back from their career for the good of the family, a lawyer said.’

The wife’s solicitor, Jane Keir at Kingsley Napley, is quoted as saying that 

‘Although Mr Justice Moor has made clear this decision should not open the floodgates to a raft of relationship-generated disadvantage claims, the judgment affirms that in truly exceptional circumstances the principle of compensation still exists in family law, and rightly so.’

‘In theory, this would apply to whichever partner steps back in their career putting family ahead of ambition and earning power.’

In theory, this is correct. The principle exists, and it applies to situations in which a partner steps back from their career in favour of the other. However, Ms Keir is right to call this ‘exceptional’. It does not open the door to compensation claims in all cases in which a party has reduced or given up paid work to care for children. Please do not get excited at the possibilities. It is very unlikely to happen for several reasons.

  1. Not enough money

In most cases, it will be necessary to use up all the parties’ assets in order to meet their needs once they are in two separate households, which means there is no additional money to compensate them. Compensation, therefore, is only really relevant in cases where there is a ‘substantial surplus over what is required to meet needs’ i.e., cases involving wealthy people.  

  • Double-counting with needs

There is an overlap between compensation and needs. For example, a party may need more capital in the divorce because they have can’t borrow much because they are not working full-time because they reduced work to care for children. So one needs to be careful of double-counting.

  • Judicial attacks on compensation

In Miller/McFarlane, Lady Hale thought that sometimes ‘the economic disadvantage generated by the relationship may go beyond need, however generously interpreted’ and ‘in some cases, compensation could justify a greater award than needs and equal sharing’. For Mrs McFarlane, for example, an award limited to her needs, even generously assessed, would leave her significantly worse off than her former husband by around £650,000 per year as a result of the choice they made that she would give up work to care for their children. 

Despite the fact that meeting needs does not always adequately compensate, most judges have treated compensation as falling simply within a generous assessment of needs – see VB v JP (‘any element of compensation is best dealt with by a generous assessment of her continuing needs’), McFarlane (No. 2), B v S, and SA v PA. That is in part because of conceptual and practical difficulties with the principle of compensation. Although these judges cannot overrule Miller/McFarlane, they are finding ways to limit its scope in two ways. First, they are restricting compensation only to those cases where the court can say, with almost near certainty, that the claimant gave up a very high earning career which would have led to earnings at least equivalent to that presently enjoyed by the respondent. That is only a small number of cases. Secondly, they are just meeting the claimant’s needs generously rather than giving her (it is usually a her) a lump sum on top of the needs.

This case

What’s unusual about the present case is that the judge, Moor J, has found that the wife gave up a very high earning career and, rather than just meet her needs generously, has awarded her a lump sum over and above needs and equal sharing of assets. The judge stated that ‘I accept that it is unusual to find significant relationship-generated disadvantage that may lead to a claim for compensation but I am clear that this is one such case.’ The case H v H is the only other reported case that I can think of where a lump sum above equal sharing has been ordered for compensation.

We will try to update this post when the judgment is published. Some discussion in this post of the prior case law is adapted from my chapter in Oxford University’s book Family Law (edited by Ruth Lamont).

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