Judicial separations, which recognise the breakdown of marriages without formally bringing them to an end, are nowadays relatively rare. However, as the High Court made clear in a ‘big money’ case, they should never be confused with divorce.
A former couple aged in their 70s had, at the wife’s behest, been granted a decree of judicial separation. In the context of those proceedings, the husband – a successful entrepreneur whose business had been valued at around $1 billion – had agreed to pay the wife over $16 million in full and final settlement of her financial claims against him.
The husband petitioned for divorce five years later and was granted a decree nisi. The wife sought financial relief, on the basis that the equal sharing principle should be applied to a family fortune that had been almost entirely built up during the course of the marriage. However, the husband argued that her application should be struck out on the basis that it was a vexatious attempt to go behind the settlement.
In rejecting his arguments, however, the Court found that, on a true reading of the settlement agreement, it applied only to the judicial separation proceedings and did not preclude the wife from pressing her financial claims in the divorce. The husband had not made full disclosure of his assets prior to the settlement and there was no evidence that it had been intended to encompass future divorce proceedings. In the circumstances, the wife’s application was not an abuse of process and was permitted to proceed.