Julie Sharp successfully challenged a ruling that her former husband was entitled to half of the fortune she built up during their four year marriage. She argued that because it was a short marriage he should not get half of the matrimonial pot.
The Court of Appeal ruled in her favour, concluding that the £2.725 million payout previously awarded to Robin Sharp should be reduced to £2 million.
Leading divorce lawyers warned that the ruling marked a change in how one of the basic principles of matrimonial law could now be applied to shorter marriages, creating yet another point of contention.
Previously there was no legal distinction between a ‘short’ and a ‘long’ marriage, and therefore no defined point after which wealth generated should be shared.
The judges heard that the Sharps had a “four-year marriage to separation”, during which time they had no children and kept their finances separate. The couple, who were described as being of “relatively modest” origins, were both earning around £100,000 when they met in 2007 but during the relationship, Mrs Sharp also received bonuses totalling £10.5 million.
They separated in 2013 when Mrs Sharp became aware her husband had been having “a clandestine affair,” the extent of which he only fully admitted in evidence to court in 2015.
Two years later, a family judge ruled that the “principled outcome” was that Mr Sharp, 43, should receive half of their total assets as no sufficient reason had been identified for “departing” from the established principle of equal division.
However, Lord Justice McFarlane, one of three judges sitting on the Court of Appeal panel, said there was “no impediment” to depart from that principle, concluding that in a short, dual career marriage in which the couple had kept their finances separate, it was indeed “justified”.
The ruling confirmed that Mr Sharp’s award should be reduced to £2 million, comprising a property valued at £1.1 million, to be transferred to him, plus a lump sum of £900,000.
Lord Justice McFarlane said: “The husband made no contribution to the source of the wife’s bonuses and this is not a case where, save in the final year, the husband is said to have contributed more to the home life or welfare of the family than the wife.”This case is, therefore, a ‘non-business partnership, non-family asset case’ where the bulk, indeed effectively all, of the property has been generated by the wife. Mrs Sharp had received bonuses way beyond the level of her previous earnings purely as a result of her employment and … without any contribution, either domestic or business, from her husband.”
The Court of Appeal’s ruling is a change in how the concept of fairness should best be applied in relation to short marriages in particular.
This judgment poses almost as many questions as it answers. How long does a marriage have to be to be defined as ‘short’?; and at exactly what stage is someone entitled to share the wealth generated by their spouse?
The Court of Appeal judges have made clear that the Sharps’ case is one of a very small number of cases where a departure from the equal sharing split principle is justified. If the couple had children, or Mr Sharp himself had a low income, the outcome could have been different because of his “needs”.