Helen’s stabbing of Rob in The Archers does not guarantee her violent spouse the sympathy of the court say Harriet Errington
The UK has been gripped in recent weeks by the tale of domestic abuse in popular radio soap opera The Archers. The story of the villainous Rob’s cruel treatment of his wife culminated in a dramatic twist of events when the desperate Helen, worn down by months of psychological and, at times, physical abuse stabbed Rob repeatedly, resulting in her arrest and a charge of attempted murder.
As it seems that Rob will survive the attack one has to wonder whether divorce is now inevitable. This begs the question as to what extent would Rob’s, or indeed Helen’s, behaviour be taken into account by the divorce courts in England and Wales?
Conduct is commonly taken into account in relation to the grounds for divorce itself. Either spouse would be able to cite the other’s conduct as an example as the other party’s ‘unreasonable behaviour’ so as to initiate divorce proceedings.
Conduct may also be a significant factor in determining the arrangements for any children of a marriage. Violence, whether ongoing domestic violence or a one-off act such as a stabbing, will be viewed as harmful to children, whether they were themselves subject to violence or witness to abuse in the home. In such cases safeguards will need to be established to protect children and a court would need to be satisfied that any contact with a parent who has perpetrated violence or abuse is both safe and in the best interests of the child.
The courts deal with the financial arrangements following divorce separately.
Many people are surprised to find that conduct is rarely taken into account in determining the division of finances. Only in circumstances in which it would be ‘inequitable to disregard it’ will conduct play a part in determining whether a higher share of the assets should be awarded to the ‘innocent’ party. This is a high hurdle and many cases involving seemingly extreme conduct have not met this requirement.
For example, in the recent case of MAP v MFP which involved a husband spending family monies on cocaine and prostitution, the conduct was not deemed serious enough to be taken into account by the courts. Similarly many cases involving adultery, even after short marriages, have been held by English judges to be insufficient to warrant a higher financial award to the ‘wronged’ party.
Examples of rare cases in which conduct was taken into account include the following:
- A wife shooting her husband with a shotgun with intent to endanger life (Armstrong v Armstrong, 1974)
- A husband attacking his wife with a razor, inflicting serious injuries (Jones v Jones, 1976)
- A wife inflicting stab wounds on husband twice with a knife (Bateman v Bateman, 1979)
- A husband committing incest with children of the family (S v S, 1982)
- Wife stabbing husband in abdomen with a knife (Hall v Hall, 1984)
- Wife facilitating the husband's attempted suicide so as to gain assets (Kyte v Kyte, 1987)
- Wife inciting others to murder the husband (Evans v Evans, 1989)
- Wife drugging husband and placing a bag over his head to prevent him from breathing (unreported)
Even in those rare cases, the perpetrator’s claims will not necessarily be extinguished. Such finding will simply be one of the relevant factors in the case which may provide a reason for departure from equal division of assets.
Only in the most ‘obvious and gross’ cases is conduct taken into account with regard to the division of assets. Although conduct does remains highly relevant in dealing with the arrangements for the children. So, for Rob and Helen, even if Helen is found guilty of attempted murder it is by no means guaranteed that Rob would receive a higher share of the matrimonial pot and the infamous Archers’ family fortune.
Harriet Errington is a solicitor in the Family team at Boodle Hatfield