Saturday 21 September 2019

Big-money divorces at highest level since boom

Couples battle over €3m assets - while 'quickie' splits may be allowed

Stock photo
Stock photo

Shane Phelan and Kevin Doyle

Big-money divorce cases involving assets worth €3m or more are at their highest level since the economic crash a decade ago.

Some 31 high-asset divorce cases were initiated in the High Court last year compared with just 17 in 2016.

The increase meant the number of such divorce cases in the High Court reached their highest level since 2008, when 43 were initiated.

The figures are revealed as a Cabinet minister said that "draconian" divorce laws are inflicting more damage on broken families.

A referendum is expected next year to dramatically speed up the process for couples seeking a divorce.

The Government is currently looking at two options to put to the people, but one could mean more "quickie" divorces.

The first option is a vote which would see the waiting time in the Constitution reduced from four to two years.

The other option would involve a vote to remove the period from the Constitution altogether and introduce the two-year period by way of legislation.

Culture Minister Josepha Madigan says her preference would be to remove the time-limit altogether. This would allow the Dáil to change the rules in future without another referendum.

Writing in today's Irish Independent, Ms Madigan puts forward the argument that a courtroom is a "barbaric venue" for the "carcass of a failed marriage" to be picked over.

Read more: Josepha Madigan: 'Legislation should help those who have separated move on in a humane way'

She says making couples wait four years to get to that point means they are "effectively trapped in unhappy marriages for years".

"This surely cannot be acceptable in modern Ireland," she said.

The Dublin South TD spent almost two decades working as a solicitor in family law, specialising in the area of separation and divorce. She also acted as a mediator in cases in an effort to assist couples to avoid a court-imposed outcome.

"I have witnessed first-hand the pain and trauma that the time-limit, which is enshrined in our Constitution under Article 42.1.3, inflicts on families," she said.

While the vast majority of divorce settlements are approved or fought in the Circuit Court, the High Court is reserved for cases where the combined assets of the two spouses is above €3m.

Despite the surge in big-money splits, divorce proceedings were down slightly overall, with 3,995 new cases last year compared with 4,179 in 2016, according to Courts Service figures.

The number of judicial separation applications also decreased, down from 1,353 in 2016 to 1,297 last year.

These are court decrees which remove the obligation on spouses to cohabit.

Unlike in divorce, where couples must be apart for four years out of the previous five, a judicial separation can be applied for where the court considers a normal marital relationship has not existed for at least a year.

While the statistics would appear to show a downward trend in marriage breakdown, leading family law solicitor Keith Walsh said they only tell part of the story.

"Certainly family lawyers say things are getting busier and busier. That hasn't been visible from the figures though."

Mr Walsh, who chairs the Law Society's family law committee, said the statistics only captured court proceedings and did not reflect separation agreements being entered into. These are legally binding agreements usually reached through mediation or negotiation - and can deal with who will live in the family home, access to children, maintenance and other issues.

"There is no doubt in my mind there has been an increase in separation agreements where a legally binding contract is entered into. They are definitely increasing," said Mr Walsh.

The solicitor welcomed the referendum planned for next year to revise or remove from the Constitution the four-year period a couple must be apart before they can be divorced.

"Four years is too long," he said. Mr Walsh said there was a huge argument in favour of change from a practical perspective.

"There would be a huge saving to the State by reducing the waiting time for divorce," he said.

"At the minute it is all duplicated. You have to get legally separated to resolve things and later get divorced. Usually people do both.

"You are paying two sets of legal fees, two sets of judges, two sets of court staff, two sets of anguish for the family and stress for the kids. So it makes complete sense to reduce it.

"If it was reduced to two years people probably wouldn't get legally separated first. They would wait and do it all in a divorce."

Irish Independent

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