Yesterday we were asked to don our transparency capes and deal with a thing in The Daily Mail. We took a peek and having done so, are happy to oblige.

The Daily Mail reported yesterday that :

Fewer women seek divorce as they fear losing their own cash in the wake of a divorce from a less well-off husband

  • With less chance of winning big divorce, women now trying to rebuild marriages
  • Successful women increasingly reluctant to give husbands cash after a divorce
  • Lawyers say shift has been prompted by both the growing success of women

Yes, that sub-headline does cut off mid sentence, but later on The Mail repeat it, and give us the rest of the equation – the shift has been prompted by both the growing success of women and ‘a switch in the attitudes of judges’. Apparently.

The topic of when and why people get divorced is indeed a worthy one. It would certainly be interesting to read some research into these behaviours. The article purports to be based upon a ‘study’, later described as a ‘report by the Hall Brown Family Law firm’, giving the clear impression it is based upon some sort of research. But we can find no trace of any such research, and in fact the article doesn’t even quote from it, instead taking quotes from a partner at the firm who apparently produced the ‘report’. We don’t think it is controversial to suggest that typically law firms engage more in the provision of legal services than research, and there is no evidence on the Hall Brown website that this firm is also housing a legal research facility, and we cannot find any report. We’ve tweeted Hall Brown to ask for a copy.

Apart from providing an excellent PR opportunity for the law firm in question and a bit of easy copy for the journalist, this item also has the handy secondary function of enabling the Daily Mail to rehearse their pet hate of ‘meal tickets for life’ (and so called gold digging wives generally).

The report that is cited is said to ‘point’ to figures from the Office for National Statistics that show ‘a collapse in the number of wives who are taking the first move in divorce and petitioning to end their marriages’. Unfortunately the article neither points to a link for the report nor the statistics.

Although the mystery report isn’t quoted, a partner from the firm in question is quoted extensively, hypothesising about what the ONS statistics mean. Hall Brown have previously been quoted in Daily Mail pieces which suggest that they are based on some sort of research (see here : What a load of old Dobbin, where the article was based upon an ‘analysis’ by Hall Brown). In reality this sort of article seems to be a sort of uninformative advertorial for the law firm in question, whilst giving the reader an impression of being an evidence based article.

We recognise that it might be said it is unfair to criticise a report we haven’t read. However, we are struck by the fact that, if there is anything in the ‘report’ other than a rehearsal of the (publicly available) ONS statistics, it inexplicably hasn’t made it into this article. And if either journalist or author of the report really intends it to be taken seriously it would be necessary for it to be published and available for scrutiny.

The ONS statistics that are being referred to can be found here. You can see from a quick look at the spreadsheet that these don’t provide any clue about the whys and wherefores, they just tell you how many. If the statistics do not support the propositions in the article, what does?

It is certainly right that the proportion of divorces started by women is lower than it used to be – it has steadily declined percentage point by percentage point since the early 1980s – and it is true that the overall divorce rate peaked in 1993 and has been broadly in decline since then. But the Daily Mail have expressed the reduced proportion of female petitioners so as to make it sound more significant than it probably is. They say :

Over 23 years between 1993 – the year divorce reached a peak of 165,018 – and 2016, the number of wives petitioning for divorce dropped by 45 per cent, while petitions from husbands declined by only 10 per cent.

A less dramatic way of expressing this would have been to say that there has been a drop in the proportion of wives petitioning of just over 10% (In 1993 wives made up 72% of all petitioners, whilst by 2016 they made up only 61%). The numbers of husbands petitioning has reduced slightly but has been pretty flat (between 38-42,000 for a decade).

But the simple truth is that anyone who suggests that they know why these patterns have changed is speculating, guessing, saying something to sound knowledgeable. Backing up a proposition with ‘a study has found’, as this article does, is to suggest that something has been established on evidence. Here that evidence remains unidentified.

It may be correct, as the lawyer quoted in the article suggests, that the change in divorce patterns is something to do with more women becoming financially independent and wanting to protect their wealth, or more women realising they aren’t going to necessarily get lifelong maintenance (a meal ticket for life). But it might also be true that the patterns can be explained by all sorts of other factors separately or in combination. Here are two likely candidates off the top of our head :

  • it could be connected to the economic climate / financial crisis and the aftermath of that
  • it could be related to the withdrawal of legal aid in most divorce cases since 2013 (and reductions in legal aid rates before then), where women remain more likely to be financially vulnerable / unable to fund legal advice than men because of child care responsibilities

Our hypotheses may be wrong, but we aren’t holding them out as anything more than a guess. The proposition that ‘With diminishing chances of winning a bumper share of a husband’s wealth, many wives now prefer to try to rebuild their marriage rather than risk a break-up’ seems to entirely neglect the possibility that wives are not choosing not to divorce but may feel unable to take the step of initiating a divorce when they cannot afford legal representation.

What’s more, the proposition that wives have a reduced chance of ‘winning’ a share in the ‘husband’s’ wealth is perhaps more wishful thinking than reality on the Mail’s part. The law hasn’t changed. A wife (or husband) who is financially independent or has the ability to become so within a reasonable period of time is unlikely to secure a lifelong maintenance award, but decisions about how the parties’ joint assets and income are shared are made on a case by case basis with needs often being the determining factor. Anecdotally, there are suggestions that joint lives maintenance is less common than it once was, but reports of that vary and we are not aware of any clear statistics on such reported patterns. Probably any shift in the frequency of joint lives maintenance orders is connected to the fact that more women are financially independent, and even those who are stay at home mums are likely these days to have been in work before having children, and to be capable of going back to work at some point. When the Daily Mail talk about how in the ‘2000’s, divorce courts handed out a string of generous ‘meal ticket for life’ settlements to wives’ they are comparing apples with pears – the notorious cases in the 2000’s were ‘big money’ cases, which are hardly representative of the 80,000-odd couples who are divorcing each year.

We think this sort of PR masquerading as research / journalism should be called out. It is based upon gender stereotypes and tired tropes about venal women, is utterly uninformative and can only be bad for the reputation of the legal profession and legal system. There is nothing wrong with offering an opinion in a quote, but it is misleading to allow the newspaper to dress up opinion as something more than it is. Indeed, such conduct on the part of The Daily Mail is a breach of their own regulatory code (The Mail subscribe to IPSO, and are bound by their Editors’ Code), which under clause 1, Accuracy says :

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

However, breach of the Editors’ Code or not, it seems clear from this tweet, which ‘owns’ the piece, that the lawyer who offered up the quotes is content with the way that they have been used :

At the time when we wrote the above Hall Brown had not responded to our request for sight of their ‘report’ :

Since then, we have received an email from Hall Brown’s PR agent who assures us that he approaches his work with ‘rigour’, and that ‘the figures – and assumptions drawn from them – were tested by the Daily Mail’s correspondent prior to publication’. He also links to a blog post ‘based on Sam’s analysis’ on the Hall Brown website (which can be found here, and which we are assured was ‘set for posting before the Project’s tweet arrived’). Although we are not sure what one is, we are offered a ‘first-person-singular view on the research undertaken’. This at least seems to confirm that some ‘research’ has been undertaken. We assume that the research is something above and beyond googling to find the ONS statistics and have asked for the report in an email reply.

We can’t see that the blog post really advances matters. It is neither research, nor a report, nor a study. It is the personal opinion of a lawyer, no doubt based on some experience, but it ain’t research and it does not answer our question (regardless of when it was drafted).

Neither are we terribly reassured by the email, which seems to fail to respond to our specific enquiry about the source material. We are not sure how a journalist would go about testing the ONS’ statistics, or the assumptions drawn from them any more than the lawyer himself could properly make such assumptions. The statistics tell us nothing about the circumstances or demographics of the people petitioning for divorce from which we could reliably make any assumptions as to motivation – for example, how many of them are the ‘successful’ women described, how financially independent are they, are they home makers, how old are their children, how old are the women in question? How old for that matter are their spouses, and what are their circumstances? The whole article is predicated upon assumptions about the circumstances and state of knowledge of a cohort of several tens of thousands of women, for which there is simply no data at all.

If we receive a further reply we will update this post and of course, offer a right of reply.

Feature Pic by Vaguely Artistic on Flickr – creative commons. Thanks!