Divorce is bad enough without the legal process around it making it so much worse

Lessons to be learnt, at the time of year when marriage comes under the most strain

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The Independent Online

“Most luxuries are strictly unnecessary”. This thought, alluding to a passage in King Lear, is one we should probably bear in mind as we enter the season of materialistic gluttony, a time when we confuse need with want, and when our sense of proportion succumbs to a sense of entitlement. So who brought Shakespeare to the fore? A church minister? A philosopher? A spiritual leader? Russell Brand? No, it was Mr Justice Mostyn, sitting in the Family Division of the High Court. And he wasn't talking about reckless spending at Christmas time. He was invoking the Bard in his ruling over a bitterly-fought divorce case.

At this point, it is worth remembering that this is not exclusively the season of goodwill. It is also a time when family units are put under particular strain, and as a result the number of divorce suits lodged in January is double that of any other month. Yes, it's a depressing statistic, and made even worse by the unsatisfactory way in which we do divorce in this country.  I am no stranger to this world myself, and my experience has made me utterly despondent about the adversarial nature of our divorce laws, how the system is rigged in favour of the lawyers and, and how, by being encouraged to focus solely on a financial settlement, right-thinking, morally-centred people can become mercenary maniacs.

Those in stable, happy marriages will have read various dispatches from the High Court this week with astonishment. How could people, once in love, behave towards each other with such animosity? How could a partnership be dissolved in such a blizzard of accusation, and with such apparent venality? I would argue that it's because they are encouraged to behave this way, by a system that is about conflict rather than conciliation, and by lawyers who have everything to gain by prolonging an argument rather than seeking a remedy.

Mr Justice Mostyn is the latest senior legal figure to voice exasperation about the way those involved in divorce battles behave, without questioning why this should be so. He talks about the wife's written statement, in a claim for maintenance payments of £128,000 a year, as a “most unhappy document and seems to have been written with a pen dripped in vitriol”. More and more couples these days are opting for mediation, in which a financial settlement is reached after face-to-face discussion rather than lawyer-to-lawyer letter, and it's not hard to see why.

If the story of Scot Young's ex-wife, who is now on her 14th firm of solicitors and has run up legal bills of £6.4m in an attempt to get what she sees as a just settlement, isn't depressing enough, how about this case which emerged from the High Court yesterday. A couple in their seventies, their 43-year marriage over, have been arguing for two years about money. The sum they are contesting is £2m, and the sum they have spent on legal fees is....£2m. In his ruling, Judge Francis, said: “I end by expressing the fervent hope that this fractured family may now set itself on a course of conciliation.” For this benighted couple, and for many, many others, that's a Christmas wish I can get behind. 

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