Divorce - Do women win too much?

For divorcing wives, England is now seen as by far the most generous country in Europe, with some la

The unique sympathy bestowed by English judges on women in the throes of marriage breakdown has led to thousands of wives from other countries flocking to London to have their divorce cases heard here. While other European countries expect women to return to work and support themselves after the breakdown of a marriage, England has experienced a counter-feminist revolution in recent years. It has become normal here for women to lay claim to all the assets their husbands have brought to the marriage, and even future earnings, as well as being supported by them for the rest of their lives

The situation has spawned a vast legal industry. We have no fewer than 11,000 solicitors specialising in marital disputes, and of the annual 150,000 divorces that go through English courts, 24,000 - or one in six - now involve couples from other countries where the disgruntled partner, usually the wife, has managed to spring the petition here in order to get the best deal.

Now all that is set to change with a massive upheaval being proposed from Brussels and due to come into force next year. The European Commission has put forward a controversial new legal framework to streamline attitudes to adultery and maintenance across Europe. It wants to end divorce "tourism" and prevent disgruntled spouses shopping for a court hearing in England. Although Britain is still calling for amendments to the proposals, the Brussels timescale decrees that the changes should come into force at the beginning of 2008.

Specialist lawyers predict that the new regulation, known as Rome III, will highlight the gulf between how divorce is dealt with in England compared with everywhere else. The regulation introduces the concept of "applicable law", mean ing that many people born and married elsewhere would not have access to an English-style divorce. The intention is to introduce greater consistency in the treatment of divorcees through out the European Union. English divorce court judges will thus be compelled to abandon any misty-eyed compassion for women and fall into step with other countries in order to stamp out the pressure from divorce shoppers.

In recent years, a number of lurid public div orce cases have attracted the headlines. The wife of the celebrity golfer Colin Montgomerie received a £15m divorce settlement, and a court ruled that the wife of the Middlesbrough soccer star Ray Parlour was entitled to a one-third share of his future earnings to reflect her early role in promoting his talents. Last year, the House of Lords ruled that financier's wife Melissa Miller was entitled to £5m - a quarter of her husband's fortune - in compensation for a failed marriage lasting under three years, and despite the fact she had a career of her own. At the same time, Julia McFarlane was awarded annual payments for life of £250,000 from her ex-husband to compensate her for the successful legal career she would have had, had she not got married and raised a family.

But it is not just the wives of very rich men who do well. A survey published last year by the accountants Grant Thornton revealed that the average "pot of wealth" to be divided on divorce stood at £1m in 2005. Non-working wives generally got 53 per cent of it. "England is seen as the most 'divorce friendly' jurisdiction for women," said Andrea McLaren, the firm's senior specialist in marital settlements. "There are increasing numbers of people who have holiday homes and other assets abroad. The situation is complex and we would welcome EU-wide divorce rules."

The rest of Europe has got on with implementing the principles of feminism and equality, for which generations of women have fought long and hard. When couples split up, the general view is that pay-offs to wives, entirely separate from maintenance for children, should be along the lines of redundancy - a bit of a cushion to help with adapting to a new lifestyle. Laws are generally fairly tightly drawn, reducing the scope for argument. In England, however, the discretion allowed to judges means that case law comes to reflect the prevailing opinion.

It was the White v White ruling in 2000 which is deemed to have established new rules giving women a 50:50 entitlement to marital property. Pamela and Martin White, who had run a farm together, had been married for 33 years. Mrs White was offered £800,000 when the marriage ended, but the law lords decreed the sum should be increased to £1.5m.

Since then, the notion of equality seems to have been subsumed in the drive for women to present themselves as victims. When it comes to divorce, they are being seen here as largely incapable of supporting themselves, and are laying claim to inherited wealth, and the fruits of any previous career success their husband has brought to the marriage, in a way that would be unlawful in neighbouring European member states.

"You just have to look at who judges are," said William Longrigg, a solicitor who has regularly acted in cases where couples are fighting over assets worth millions. "They are part of the establishment, largely male, and drawn from a narrow social class. They still hold the view that women need to be protected. Other people may consider that paternalistic or patronising, but old habits die hard. Because they are allowed to operate so much discretion in divorce cases, we get all sorts of strange decisions." Like many of his legal colleagues, Longrigg believes an overhaul of the divorce laws is long overdue.

The latest high-profile case to make waves was the break-up of the television personality Chris Tarrant and his wife Ingrid. Their divorce last week followed revelations that Tarrant, 60, had a protracted affair. Tarrant is understood to be handing over half of his £10m property portfolio, plus £5m in lieu of maintenance payments, to compensate his wife for the failure of their 15-year marriage."I am deeply sorry for the hurt I have caused my loyal wife and wonderful children," Tarrant said in a statement issued last year. "I have only myself to blame for the breakdown of my marriage."

He may well have been happy to take the responsibility, but such a generous settlement would be unlikely even in countries such as Greece and Italy where gender roles would appear to be more traditional than ours. Their legal systems assume maintenance for ex-wives will be short-term. Most other regimes also assume women are capable of working once a toddler reaches three, while in countries such as Sweden, it is only available during a "transition period" to find work or undertake training. In Denmark, maintenance payments for ex-wives are a rarity. Other countries, including Belgium, Germany and France, also take the view that any assets acquired by the man before the beginning of the marriage remain his when the marriage ends. Prenuptial agreements decreeing the division of assets should the couple split up are still not recognised in England, but are binding in countries across Europe from France and Spain to Poland and the Czech Republic.

Of the 2.2 million marriages taking place an nually across the European Union, almost a fifth involve partners from different countries. The international divorce rate is not far behind, with 16 per cent of the 875,000 failed marriages involving couples from different countries.

Last month, the constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman gave a speech in Brussels pointing out the urgent need for the European Commission to come up with new workable rules that could be applied despite differences in countries' legal codes. "It is important that family justice works across different European countries," she declared. "It is essential the commission brings forward proposals on which we can all agree."

If the changes are to work, however, English divorce legislation - or its interpretation - will have to change to bring us into line with Europe. Otherwise, lawyers say there will merely be fresh rounds of legal battles by wives arguing for the right of access to London's gilded divorce courts. Unhappy corporate wives have been known to confide how they deliberately lured their husbands to jobs in London, in the knowledge that after six months' residence they will qualify to present a divorce petition here. "We call it the race to court," said Anna Worwood of the law firm Manches. "It is well known that our system is favourable. The idea is you get your petition in first and claim a lot of maintenance from the courts here, before the husband launches proceedings in a less favourable jurisdiction."

Yet for many divorcees, the implication that they are seeking to "fine" ex-husbands is deeply offensive. A 43-year-old former solicitor and mother-of-two, who has just emerged from a protracted court battle with her ex-husband, said: "I do feel bitter. He was the one having an affair. I tried to save the marriage, I gave up my career to give him an easier life. If things had gone his way, I would have been left with almost nothing. I don't think it has anything to do with notions of feminism. It is fairness. It would be more to the point to bring European systems in line with ours."

Cate Briddick, a barrister from the pressure group Rights of Women, said the recent high-profile divorce decisions merely recognised the principles of equality between the partners in a marriage. "Until now, married women have suffered a huge disadvantage," she said. "The partners should come to a marriage as equals and should be treated as equals when they leave it. If you don't want that kind of relationship, you don't marry."

A spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said last week that Harriet Harman is due to attend a series of further meetings in Brussels to search for common ground in the divorce minefield. Although there is certainty that change will come, he acknowledged that, like divorce itself, the negotiations are likely to involve a bitter battle.

Tour divorce: how Europeans do it
Research by Lucy Knight

Denmark
Maintenance is not common in Denmark, and when granted it does not normally last more than ten years. In England, chances of gaining maintenance for life increased after the 2006 McFarlane case, in which the wife received £250,000 for life.

France
Maintenance for the wife can be claimed if she conceived during the marriage; it is paid until the child turns three. But all maintenance depends on the obligated spouse's financial ability to pay. Pre-marital assets and inherited wealth are excluded.

Spain
Most of Spain splits assets acquired during marriage equally. In Catalonia, however, these do not have to be shared. Maintenance depends upon factors including length of marriage, health, employment prospects and the parties' skills.

Sweden
In principle, all marital property is to be divided equally between the husband and wife. Anything acquired before marriage is subject to any pre-nuptial agreement. Ex-spouses are expected to support themselves, though maintenance may be awarded for a transitional period.

Scotland
Often seen as "mean" for its 50:50 division of matrimonial property, regardless of the length of the marriage. Still, inherited assets and assets acquired prior to marriage are excluded. Also, maintenance is usually paid for only three years from divorce unless there are exceptional circumstances.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack

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They know where you live

Imagine your house being raided by armed police. That’s what happened to Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts after she fell victim to an internet hoaxer.

At around midnight on Tuesday 11 August 2015, a man dialled 999 to report a murder. A woman had been killed in her London home, he said, before hanging up without offering his name. A second call followed. This time, the man claimed to be the killer. He told the operator that he had now taken the woman’s children hostage at the Islington address. They were locked with him inside a room in the house, he said. The police responded with reassuring speed. Fifteen minutes later, eight officers, five of them armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by saliva-flecked dogs, arrived at the scene and took up position in neighbouring front gardens. When one officer banged on the front door of the house, the team was greeted, moments later, not by a masked murderer but by a blinking and bewildered au pair.

Justine Roberts, the woman whom the caller claimed to have killed, was in fact nearly 2,000 kilometres away – in Italy, holidaying with her husband and children. After explaining this to the police, the au pair called Roberts, who assumed that the incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that could be unpicked after the vacation. It was no mistake. Roberts had been the victim of “swatting”, the term given to a false emergency call designed to bait an armed unit of police officers to storm someone’s home. It wasn’t until a few days later, as the family was preparing to return to London, that Roberts discovered that she had been the target of a planned and sustained attack, not only on her household, but also on her business.

Roberts is the founder of Mumsnet, the popular British internet discussion forum on which parents share advice and information. A few days before the swatting incident, members of 8chan, a chat room that prides itself on being an open, anonymous platform for free speech, no matter how distasteful, had registered accounts on Mums­net with the aim of trolling people there. When legitimate Mumsnet users identified and then ridiculed the trolls, some retreated to 8chan to plot more serious vengeance in a thread that the police later discovered. Roberts wasn’t involved in the online skirmish but, as the public face of the site, she was chosen as the first target.

After the initial armed response, Roberts’s perception was that the police were unconcerned about the swatting attack. “We were told that there was no victim, so there was not much that could be done,” she told me. The hoax caller, however, was not finished. In the days after the incident, there was chatter on Mumsnet and Twitter about what had happened. A Mumsnet user whom I will call Jo Scott – she requested anonymity for her own safety – exchanged heated messages with a hacker who claimed responsibility for the 999 call.

“It descended into jokes and silliness, like many things do,” Scott said. “I didn’t take it seriously when the hacker said he had big surprises in store.” She doesn’t believe that what happened next was personal. “I think I was just easy to find.”

A few days after police were called to Roberts’s home, Scott was in her bedroom while her husband was sitting downstairs playing video games. At 11pm, she heard a noise outside. “I looked out of the window and saw blue flashing lights in the street,” she recalled. “I could hear shouting but I didn’t pay it much notice.” Then she heard her husband open the front door. Police rushed into the house. An armed officer shouted upstairs, asking Scott if she was hurt. When she replied that she was fine, he told her to fetch her two young children: he needed to see them. Scott shook her sons awake, explaining, so as not to alarm them, that the police had come to show the boys their cars. As the three of them went downstairs, the officers swept up through the house, repeatedly asking if there were any weapons on the property.

“I was beyond confused by this point,” Scott said. “Everyone was carrying a gun. They had little cutaway bits so you could see the bullets. My eldest asked one of the officers if he could have a go on his gun and went to touch it.”

As Scott sat with an officer downstairs, she asked what had happened to her husband. “I later found out that the noises I’d heard were the police calling for him to come outside,” she said. “He dropped the PlayStation controller as he left the room. It was only later that we realised it’s a good job he did: in the dark, the controller might have looked like a weapon.”

Outside, Scott’s husband had been surrounded and arrested. Other police ­officers were on the lookout in the front gardens of nearby properties, having warned the couple’s neighbours to stay indoors, away from their windows. “One of the officers said it was beginning to look like a hoax,” Scott said. “Then he mentioned swatting. As soon as he said that word, I twigged that I’d seen the term that day on Twitter in relation to the Mumsnet hack.”

***

The term “swatting” has been used by the FBI since 2008. “Swat” is an acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”, the American police squads routinely called to intervene in hostage situations. It is, in a sense, a weaponised version of a phoney order of pizza, delivered as a prank to a friend’s home, albeit one that carries the possibility of grave injury at the hands of police. For perpetrators, the appeal is the ease with which the hoax can be set in motion and the severity of the results. With a single, possibly untraceable phone call, dialled from anywhere in the world, it is possible to send an armed unit to any address, be it the home of a high-profile actor whom you want to prank or that of someone you want to scare.

In America, where swatting originated, the practice has become so widespread – targets have included Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood and the Californian congressman Ted Lieu – that it is now classed as an act of domestic terrorism. In the UK, where Justine Roberts’s was one of the first recorded cases, swatting is classed as harassment, though that may change if these and other forms of internet vigilante attacks, such as doxxing, become increasingly commonplace.

Doxxing involves the publication of someone’s personal details – usually their home address, phone numbers, bank details and, in some cases, email address – on the internet. It is often the prelude to swatting: after all, the perpetrator of a hoax cannot direct the police to the target’s home address until this is known. (During the week of the Mumsnet attacks, one of the perpetrators attempted to locate another target using their computer’s IP address, which can identify where a person is connected to the internet, often with alarming precision. Their calculation, however, was slightly out; police were called to a neighbour’s address.)

Though doxxing has a less dramatic outcome than swatting, the psychological effects can be just as severe. For victims – usually people who are active on the internet and who have outspoken opinions or who, in the eyes of an internet mob, have committed some kind of transgression – the mere threat of having their personal information made available on the web can cause lasting trauma. A Canadian software developer whose home address, bank details, social security number and email history were published online in 2014 told me that he now keeps an axe by his front door. “I still don’t feel safe here,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Christos Reid, a social media manager for a software company, was doxxed last year. Reid’s information came from a website he had registered seven years earlier. “I woke up one morning to find a tweet announcing my personal details,” he told me. When he asked the Twitter account holder to take down the address, he was told to commit suicide. Reid said he was “OK for about half an hour”; but then, after he went out, he broke down in the street. “I’ve become more paranoid,” he said. He no longer gives out business cards with personal information.

Reid lives in London, but at the time of the doxx he was attending an event in Nottingham, home to the British police’s largest cybercrime division. He was impressed with the police response, even though they told him that they had not heard of the term “doxxing” before. “I was interviewed by two separate people about my experiences who then compiled everything into a case file and transferred it to the Met. When I arrived home, an officer visited me to discuss what happened and my options.”

The policeman explained harassment law to Reid, and offered advice on how to improve security at his flat and what to do if someone hostile turned up at the address. Reid shouldered the repercussions of what had happened alone; no suspects were identified. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police similarly said that although detectives from Islington CID have investigated the swatting attacks made on Roberts and Scott, no suspects have been identified “at this time”, even as “inquiries continue”.

Doxxing may seem to be a mild form of harassment but it carries with it an implicit threat of impending violence; the worrying message is: “We know where you live.” Unlike swatting, which is always malicious, doxxing is sometimes viewed by its perpetrators as virtuous. In November 2014, hackers claiming to be aligned with the internet group Anonymous published personal information allegedly belonging to a Ku Klux Klan member from Missouri. The hackers said that their action was a response to the KKK’s threat to use lethal force against demonstrators in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. In January 2015 hackers claiming to be from Isis took over US Central Command’s Twitter account and posted information about senior military officers, including phone numbers and email addresses. In each case, those carrying out the doxxing believed, however mistakenly, in the virtue of their actions and hoped that the information could be used to bring punishment or ruin to the subject.

The term “doxxing” may be new but the practice is an old one. The Hollywood blacklist revealed the political beliefs and associations of actors and directors in the late 1940s as a way to invite shame, deny employment and dissuade others from following their example. “But it has become a lot easier to find people’s private details with the help of the internet,” Jeroen Vader told me. Vader owns Pastebin, a website that allows users to upload and distribute text documents, and where much of the personal data is anonymously uploaded and shared. “People post their private information on social networks,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that their information is so easily available to others.”

In Justine Roberts’s case, the perpetrator may not even have needed to look at social networks to mine her personal information. “If you’re on the electoral roll, you’re easy to find,” she said. “There’s not much you can do to stop people getting hold of your data one way or another, whether it’s for nefarious reasons or simply to better advertise to you. We live in a world that is constantly trying to gather more information about us.”

Jeroen Vader said he has noticed an “upward trend” in the number of doxxing posts uploaded to Pastebin in recent months, but insisted that when someone uses the site’s abuse report system these offending posts are removed immediately.

Across social media companies, action is more often reactive than proactive. Victoria Taylor, a former director at Reddit, one of the largest community-driven websites in the world, said that the rule against publishing other users’ personal information has been “consistently one of the site’s most basic policies” and that “any violation of this rule is taken extremely seriously by the team and community”. Still, she was only able to recommend that victims of doxxing send a message to the site’s administrators. Similarly, when asked what a person can do to remove personal details that have been published without permission, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Use our help form.”

The spokesperson added: “There has def­initely been an overall increase in doxxing since 2006, both on Twitter and on the internet more generally.” She attributed this rise to the emergence of search engines such as Intelius and Spokeo, services designed to locate personal information.

***

The surge in the number of dox­xing and swatting attacks is in part a result of the current lack of legal protection for victims. Confusion regarding the law on doxxing is pervasive; the term is even not mentioned in either US or European law. In a tutorial posted on Facebook in 2013, the writer claims: “Doxxing isn’t illegal as all the information you have obtained is public,” and adds: “But posting of the doxx might get you in a little trouble.”

Phil Lee, a partner in the privacy, security and information department of Fieldfisher based at the law firm’s office in Silicon Valley, said that differing privacy laws around the world were part of the problem. “Various countries have laws that cover illegal or unauthorised obtaining of data. Likewise, some of the consequences of releasing that data, such as defamation or stalking, cover elements of what we now term doxxing. But there is no global law covering what is a global phenomenon.” Indeed, Roberts believes that her London address was targeted from America – the 999 call was routed through a US proxy number.

One challenge to creating a law on doxxing is that the sharing of personal information without permission has already become so widespread in the digital age. “If a law was to state something like, ‘You must not post personal information about another person online without their consent,’ it wouldn’t reflect how people use the internet,” Lee said. “People post information about what their friends and family members have been doing all the time without their consent.

“Such a law could have a potentially detrimental effect on freedom of speech.”

Lee believes that a specific law is unnecessary, because its potentially harmful effects are already covered by three discrete pieces of legislation dealing with instances where a person’s private information is obtained illegally, when that information is used to carry out illegal acts and when the publication of the information is accompanied by a threat to incite hatred. However, this does not adequately account for cases in which the information is obtained legally, and then used to harass the individual in a more legally ambiguous manner, either with prank phone calls or with uninvited orders of pizza.

Susan Basko, an independent lawyer who practises in California and who has been doxxed in the course of her frequent clashes with internet trolls, believes that the onus should be on the law, rather than the public. She points out that in the US it is a crime to publicise information about a government employee such as their home address, their home and cellphone numbers, or their social security number, even if the information is already online. “This law should apply to protect all people, not just federal employees,” she said. “And websites, website-hosting companies and other ISPs should be required to uphold this law.”

Basko said that doxxing will continue to increase while police have inadequate resources to follow up cases. For now, it is up to individuals to take preventative measures. Zoë Quinn, an American game designer and public speaker who was doxxed in 2014, has launched Crash Override, a support network and assistance group for targets of online harassment, “composed entirely of experienced survivors”.

Quinn, who spoke about the problem at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC in April last year, recently posted a guide on how to reduce the likelihood of being doxxed. “If you are worried you might some day be targeted,” she wrote, “consider taking an evening to stalk yourself online, deleting and opting out of anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Both Scott and Roberts have changed their privacy habits following the attacks. Scott is more careful about interacting with strangers online, while Roberts uses scrambler software, which ensures that she never uses the same password for more than one online site or service.

For both women’s families, the effects of their encounters with armed police have also lingered. When one day recently Roberts’s husband returned home early from work, the au pair called the police, believing it was an intruder. And Scott is haunted by what happened.

“What if my husband had made a sudden move or resisted in some way? What if my eldest had grabbed the gun instead of gently reaching for it? What if people locally believed that my husband did actually have guns in the house?” she asks. “I don’t think the people making these sorts of hoax calls realise the impact.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism