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29 November 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

See you in court

Our intimate secrets, once revealed in divorce cases, now come out at employment tribunals

By Mary Riddell

Another perfect relationship crumbles and a prurient public picks through the debris. There is nothing new about such post-mortems, other than the venue. Once the divorce court was the national peep-show for private feuds; now it is the employment tribunal.

The latest example featured the Prince of Wales and Elaine Day, a former personal assistant who asked the prince whether talented recruits might aspire to top postings. Although Day claims she was later “hounded” from her job after complaining of “inappropriate touching” by another aide, there seems little doubt that her primary quarrel was with her boss-in-chief. Hence her decision to reveal the private memo written to her line manager, in which the prince bewailed her “political correctness” and the cheek of lowly people who craved high office. Faced with a rebuke from the Secretary of State for Education and public anger, Charles was forced to recant.

Some workplace break-ups hinge on sex. Others, like the palace tribunal, deal with an eclectic range of broken relationships. One recent hearing involved a sacked zoo manager who, upon being accused of stealing exotic animals, had barricaded himself in a flat with a wallaby and 14 tortoises. (The claimant won his unfair dismissal suit on a technicality but got no pay-out.) Another case, as yet unadjudicated, featured a former Eton art teacher who alleged Prince Harry had cheated in his AS-level exam.

The principal requirement for an employment hearing, as for a divorce, is a total breakdown of relations, plus a conviction that it was all the other person’s fault. Salacious detail is a use- ful extra, and modern workplaces – especially those of the armed forces – often prove as interesting as the Duchess of Argyll’s boudoir.

In the most notorious divorce case of the 1960s, Lord Denning was called upon by the government to track down a “headless” man in a Polaroid picture featuring the Duchess wearing pearls and nothing else. The pre-1969 law, which obliged betrayed spouses to sup-ply proof of adultery, provided the courts and the media with regular, if more mundane, material.

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The last Tory Lord Chancellor, Mackay of Clashfern, told me once that his passion for no-fault divorce stemmed from being forced, as a young advocate, to produce grainy photographs of Scottish matrons glimpsed through the bedroom curtains of one council flat when they were supposed to be drinking Horlicks in another.

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Reform acts made marriage terminations easy and pedestrian. By 1973, divorces were obtainable by post in England and Wales, and now you can do it all by e-mail. Obviously, fraught endings still exist, but the gory details of Jude and Sadie’s parting are now better chronicled in Hello! magazine. Ordinary people’s disputes over the fish forks are no longer considered public property, and decrees nisi, obtained online, provide an even less titillating read than the European constitution.

That leaves employment cases, which have many parallels with divorce battles. Alimony has given way to the “compensation culture”. Instead of billets-doux written on lavender notelets, there is the office memorandum of the type featured in the Prince Charles tribunal. Unreasonable behaviour remains a staple of marital and workplace schisms alike.

From palaces to pig farms, disgruntled employees are assembling cases against employers. The 17 per cent rise in applications to tribunal hearings in the past year is fuelled by tighter regulations for employers, by claimants hoping for big bucks and by the decline of union membership and in-house mediation.

But there is another, unspoken reason why tribunals have superseded divorce courts as the battleground of fractured relationships. In atomised societies, office bonds may seem almost as precious, or more so, than personal ones. For work-obsessed Britons, the break-up with a boss and colleagues can be as bitter as a rift with spouse or family.

The idea that people want to spend much more time with their loved ones, and much less at their desks, is a comforting myth. In a recent Populus poll for the Times, 78 per cent of workers said they would not do fewer hours for reduced pay. A third did not need the extra money but enjoyed their jobs too much to downshift.

Status and ego are no longer adjuncts of marriage, and there is no shame in divorce. Apart from women left in penury, singledom is not only acceptable but enviable. Being sacked, by contrast, is humiliating and full of stigma. No more titles and business cards to drop around at drinks parties. No more restaurant lunches or canteen culture, and no more of the companionship and warmth that used to be linked exclusively to private relationships.

Of the official reasons for seeking redress at tribunals, unfair dismissal and sexual assault are often cited, and so is the gender bias claimed by the former banker Stephanie Villalba in her £7.5m action against Merrill Lynch. Thirty sexism-in-the-City claims have been filed against Merrill alone since 1999, although cases rarely reach a full hearing.

Even when employees get a victory, they can usually expect only a few thousand pounds. The compensation culture does not produce many jackpots, just as most divorced women never get rich on alimony. In both marital and workplace discord, lawyers often do the best.

The public and the media are happy, too. They can still have their fix of other people’s secrets, with an added twist of social shock. In an age when neither marriages nor careers have a lifetime guarantee, it can be more devastating to lose the job.