Miller v Miller (Short Marriage: Clean break)

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtHouse of Lords
Judgment Date24 May 2006
Neutral Citation[2006] UKHL 24
Date24 May 2006

[2006] UKHL 24


Appellate Committee

Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead

Lord Hoffmann

Lord Hope of Craighead

Baroness Hale of Richmond

Lord Mance



For Miller

James Turner QC

Philip Marshall

(Instructed by Sears Tooth)

For McFarlane

Barry Singleton QC

Deepak Nagpal

(Instructed by Family Law in Partnership)


For Miller

Nicholas Mostyn QC

Tim Bishop

Rebecca Bailey Harris

(Instructed by Withers LLP)

For McFarlane

Jeremy Posnansky QC

Stephen Trowell

(Instructed by Levison Meltzer Pigott)


My Lords,


These two appeals concern that most intractable of problems: how to achieve fairness in the division of property following a divorce. In White v White [2001] 1 AC 596 your Lordships' House sought to assist judges who have the difficult task of exercising the wide discretionary powers conferred on the court by Part II of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. In particular the House emphasised that in seeking a fair outcome there is no place for discrimination between a husband and wife and their respective roles. Discrimination is the antithesis of fairness. In assessing the parties' contributions to the family there should be no bias in favour of the money-earner and against the home-maker and the child-carer. This is a principle of universal application. It is applicable to all marriages.


In the White case thecapital assets were more than sufficient to meet the parties' financial needs. The two appeals now before the House again involve large amounts of money but they raise different issues from those in the White case. The first appeal concerns the division of capital assets where the marriage was short-lived. The White case concerned a lengthy marriage, of over 30 years. The marriage between Alan and Melissa Miller lasted less than three years. The second appeal concerns the marriage between Kenneth and Julia McFarlane. This lasted for 16 years. The parties' capital was insufficient to enable an immediate clean break, but Mr McFarlane was a notably high earner. The principal issue in the McFarlane appeal concerns the role of a periodical payments order in this type of case.


The facts in both cases are unusual. But before summarising these facts and identifying the issues in these cases it will be convenient to consider some general principles.

The requirements of fairness


Fairness is an elusive concept. It is an instinctive response to a given set of facts. Ultimately it is grounded in social and moral values. These values, or attitudes, can be stated. But they cannot be justified, or refuted, by any objective process of logical reasoning. Moreover, they change from one generation to the next. It is not surprising therefore that in the present context there can be different views on the requirements of fairness in any particular case.


At once there is a difficulty for the courts. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 gives only limited guidance on how the courts should exercise their statutory powers. Primary consideration must be given to the welfare of any children of the family. The court must consider the feasibility of a 'clean break'. Beyond this the courts are largely left to get on with it for themselves. The courts are told simply that they must have regard to all the circumstances of the case.


Of itself this direction leads nowhere. Implicitly the courts must exercise their powers so as to achieve an outcome which is fair between the parties. But an important aspect of fairness is that like cases should be treated alike. So, perforce, if there is to be an acceptable degree of consistency of decision from one case to the next, the courts must themselves articulate, if only in the broadest fashion, what are the applicable if unspoken principles guiding the court's approach.


This is not to usurp the legislative function. Rather, it is to perform a necessary judicial function in the absence of parliamentary guidance. As Lord Cooke of Thorndon said in White v White [2001] 1 AC 596, 615, there is no reason to suppose that in prescribing relevant considerations the legislature had any intention of excluding the development of general judicial practice.


For many years one principle applied by the courts was to have regard to the reasonable requirements of the claimant, usually the wife, and treat this as determinative of the extent of the claimant's award. Fairness lay in enabling the wife to continue to live in the fashion to which she had become accustomed. The glass ceiling thus put in place was shattered by the decision of your Lordships' House in the White case. This has accentuated the need for some further judicial enunciation of general principle.


The starting point is surely not controversial. In the search for a fair outcome it is pertinent to have in mind that fairness generates obligations as well as rights. The financial provision made on divorce by one party for the other, still typically the wife, is not in the nature of largesse. It is not a case of 'taking away' from one party and 'giving' to the other property which 'belongs' to the former. The claimant is not a supplicant. Each party to a marriage is entitled to a fair share of the available property. Thesearch is always for what are the requirements of fairness in the particular case.


What then, in principle, are these requirements? The statute provides that first consideration shall be given to the welfare of the children of the marriage. In the present context nothing further need be said about this primary consideration. Beyond this several elements, or strands, are readily discernible. The first is financial needs. This is one of the matters listed in section 25(2), in paragraph (b):'the financial needs, obligations and responsibilities which each of the parties to the marriage has or is likely to have in the foreseeable future'.


This element of fairness reflects the fact that to greater or lesser extent every relationship of marriage gives rise to a relationship of interdependence. The parties share the roles of money-earner, home-maker and child-carer. Mutual dependence begets mutual obligations of support. When the marriage ends fairness requires that the assets of the parties should be divided primarily so as to make provision for the parties' housing and financial needs, taking into account a wide range of matters such as the parties' ages, their future earning capacity, the family's standard of living, and any disability of either party. Most of these needs will have been generated by the marriage, but not all of them. Needs arising from age or disability are instances of the latter.


In most cases the search for fairness largely begins and ends at this stage. In most cases the available assets are insufficient to provide adequately for the needs of two homes. The court seeks to stretch modest finite resources so far as possible to meet the parties' needs. Especially where children are involved it may be necessary to augment the available assets by having recourse to the future earnings of the money-earner, by way of an order for periodical payments.


Another strand, recognised more explicitly now than formerly, is compensation. This is aimed at redressing any significant prospective economic disparity between the parties arising from the way they conducted their marriage. For instance, the parties may have arranged their affairs in a way which has greatly advantaged the husband in terms of his earning capacity but left the wifeseverely handicapped so far as her own earning capacity is concerned. Then the wife suffers a double loss: a diminution in her earning capacity and the loss of a share in her husband's enhanced income. This is often the case. Although less marked than in the past, women may still suffer a disproportionate financial loss on the breakdown of a marriage because of their traditional role as home-maker and child-carer.


When this is so, fairness requires that this feature should be taken into account by the court when exercising its statutory powers. The Court of Appeal decision in SRJ v DWJ (Financial Provision) [1999] 2 FLR 176, 182, is an examplewhere this was recognised expressly.


Compensation and financial needs often overlap in practice, so double-counting has to be avoided. But they are distinct concepts, and they are far from co-terminous. A claimant wife may be able to earn her own living but she may still be entitled to a measure of compensation.


A third strand is sharing. This 'equal sharing' principle derives from the basic concept of equality permeating a marriage as understood today. Marriage, it is often said, is a partnership of equals. In 1992 Lord Keith of Kinkel approved Lord Emslie's observation that ' husband and wife are now for all practical purposes equal partners in marriage': R v R [1992] 1 AC 599, 617. This is now recognised widely, if not universally. The parties commit themselves to sharing their lives. They live and work together. When their partnership ends each is entitled to an equal share of the assets of the partnership, unless there is a good reason to the contrary. Fairness requires no less. But I emphasise the qualifying phrase:'unless there is good reason to the contrary'. The yardstick of equality is to be applied as an aid, not a rule.


This principle is applicable as much to short marriages as to long marriages: see Foster v Foster [2003] EWCA Civ 565; [2003] 2 FLR 299, 305, para 19 per Hale LJ. A short marriage is no less a partnership of equals than a long marriage. The difference is that a short marriage has been less enduring. In the nature of things this will affect the quantum...

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