A woman who put too much trust in men

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THERE she stood in the witness box, the ex-wife to whom the noble knight, Sir Eldon Griffiths, now pays maintenance of 5p a year. As she gave her version of events, she twisted her fingers together and nervously touched her wedding and engagement rings. Sigrid Griffiths never wanted a divorce. She wanted reconciliation. But reconciliation never came, and now her husband is in Laguna, California, and she was in the High Court, seeking justice.

Mrs Griffiths, now 63, was neatly dressed in black and white. Her round face was bare of make-up beneath its neat silver hair. It is still a pretty face and, when the anxiety lifts for a moment, it is amused, intelligent, aware.

It is easy to imagine it in 1948, during the Berlin airlift, when Sigrid Gante met a handsome young journalist. Then she kissed him, and he turned into a pig farmer and famously pro-hanging Conservative MP. The future, luckily, is always hidden from us.

The future's worst secret came in 1979 when, after 30 years of marriage, he left her. 'My life changed totally when I lost my husband,' she said after the case, her head upright and her small figure braced among the court benches. When Eldon Griffiths gained the safe seat of Bury St Edmunds in 1964, the top prizes seemed within his reach. He was brilliant and ambitious: he had a double first from Cambridge, and had raced on a journalistic fast track to a column in the Washington Post. Sigrid used her intelligence as constituency wife, mother to their two children. His future, it seemed, was hers.

Then came exclusion. By 1985 they had been separated for five years. Eldon Griffiths wanted a decree absolute, and he had a suitable deadline in mind, Sigrid Griffiths' first solicitor in this matter, David Robson, told the High Court this week. 'There was a big constituency party in Bury St Edmunds, fixed for June, for his 21 years in Parliament. He wanted the decree absolute by then.'

Sigrid's handsome husband was then in his fifties, an age when men whose careers are clearly past their prime are often vulnerable to new love. Eldon Griffiths' zenith was as Minister for Sport in 1974. At some point after this high, he fell in love with a divorcee called Betty Stannard, who ran a Newmarket health store called In the Pink. And Mrs Griffiths found herself in the cold.

She did as wives do in that position: consulted a solicitor to represent her interest. 'Most women in my situation don't know the law,' she said. 'They go to a solicitor, and feel that which is possible will be done for them.'

There he sat in court, that solicitor, David Robson, of Dawson and Co, of Lincoln's Inn, in suit and tie and grey hair, looking, no doubt as he had then, the picture of grave male respectability and competence. Much like the other men: the male barristers, the male judge, the male solicitors, who sat in the High Court over Mrs Griffiths' case this week. For the law is essentially, like the House of Commons, still a boys' club.

Mr Robson, it turned out, in his paternal way, had felt sorry for Mrs Griffiths. She had seemed a nice person. And she had seemed cross, Mr Robson said, because she thought her husband had acted unfairly by accepting a knighthood just after the decree nisi had been granted. Mr Justice Ewbank leant forward, the corners of his mobile mouth drooping. 'She thought he had pulled a fast one?' he inquired. 'I was sorry for her over that as well,' Mr Robson said. If matters had been delayed a couple of weeks, she would have been Lady Griffiths. Mr Justice Ewbank's voice droppped. 'Rather an empty title, perhaps,' he confided, though whether he meant the emptiness of a separated wife's title or of a Conservative backbench knighthood was not clear.

Paternal or patronising, Mr Robson's pity for his client had not moved him to use, in her protection, all the powers of the law. He had, he freely agreed, failed to stop the granting of the decree absolute until all matters of finance were settled, because he was sure it would have infuriated her husband.

Mr J J Davis, Mrs Griffiths' barrister, unfolded his spectacles in disbelief. Were there, he asked, any circumstances in which Mr Robson would have used his powers under section 10 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 to stop the granting of the decree absolute?

No, said Mr Robson, with characteristic frankness. 'I would not do it on my client's behalf. I felt it exerted undue pressure, it was extortion.'

Mr Justice Ewbank was persuaded to lean forward again. 'You think that it's a bit unsporting?'

'I find I get better results by open negotiation,' Mr Robson said.

'Am I to understand,' said J J, speaking carefully, 'that just because she chose to exercise her rights, given to her by Parliament under statute, you would have refused to act for her?'

'I think that is right,' Mr Robson said.

At no time, of course, had Mr Robson told Mrs Griffiths of the eccentric view he held about the unsporting nature of Parliament's divorce laws. Nor had he managed to contact her to tell her that the decree nisi was through.

As a result of his failures to act, Mrs Griffiths lost the portion of her husband's parliamentary pension that was her due. On Thursday, Mr Justice Ewbank awarded her just over pounds 20,000 in compensation for that. Mr Robson's firm, from which he has retired, says it is contemplating an appeal.

Mrs Griffiths' circumstances are certainly less comfortable than they were. She kept the marital flat in London and was at first paid maintenance of pounds 10,000 a year. Sir Eldon has claimed that she is wealthy, but she works now as an interpreter and tour guide, and it is hard to believe that a 63-year-old does that for fun. 'I have to work,' she said.

Many morals can be drawn from her case, not least that no wife should assume that her old age is secured by her husband's pension; or that an avuncular man in a suit with a fruity voice necessarily knows what he is doing. As the court cleared, Mrs Griffiths gripped her handbag. She was not bitter about her solicitor's failings, she said. 'I am never angry about whatever I cannot change.' Could she remember the happy times of her marriage? 'Constantly,' she said, and held her head a fraction higher. 'I have led a very interesting life.'

(Photographs omitted)