When opponent spouses become the Black Knights of divorce

Black KnightThe Black Knight is one of the most famous characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Charged with guarding a small bridge, the knight is on a power trip, losing limb after limb to prevent King Arthur from passing. Eventually he loses them all. And still he issues his futile threats!

In many ways this character reminds me of opponent spouses we come across only rarely; the spouses of clients who are determined to prevent the divorce from proceeding smoothly unless it all goes their way. How do you tackle a Black Knight?

When both parties have good legal representation and there is a desire on both sides to settle sensibly, more often than not the divorce process is straightforward. There may be a moderate scrap given the adversarial nature of litigation, there is the requirement for full financial disclosure and the genuine need to clear the air between the couple, before they can begin to negotiate seriously. Settlement follows. In England and Wales, only the most fractious cases go to a full hearing.

Black Knights often decide to ignore legal advice and may even opt to do without a lawyer altogether. I have encountered Black Knights who regard themselves as puppet masters; they see themselves pulling the strings because they are convinced that they can handle their own case better than any lawyer could.

It is possible to divorce without a lawyer at your side, but if you are spoiling for a fight the decision to battle alone is usually misguided. When unreasonable demands are being made it is far more difficult to reach a settlement that is acceptable to both sides. Black Knights can’t play the game by the rules – because as non-lawyers, they don’t know the rules.

There are instances when they will harass their former partner until they can stand it no more and injunction proceedings become necessary. They may contest arrangements for the children, knowing that the children are the weaker spouse’s Achilles heel.

In the financial case there will be several pre-trial applications because the Black Knight won’t shift. If the Black Knight believes it to be true, so will everyone else. Or so the reasoning goes. They may also delude themselves that their estranged spouse is controlled by lawyers fuelling their determination to ‘win.’ Never before has anyone said “No” to a Black Knight.

What the Black Knight doesn’t understand is that their spouse can also become increasingly determined. They can and do give strong instructions to their legal team and want a fair slice of the financial pie.

If a case can be settled, efforts should be made to settle. But in these situations the spouse has no choice other than to take a poor settlement or litigate. A client may settle; perhaps worn down by the litigation, fearful of the cost and of going to court.

But most clients do not settle, instead they resign themselves to meeting in court, no matter how daunting the prospect. The Black Knight watches grimly as their spouse battles on, remaining confident of success and often continuing attempts to derail or sabotage the process.

But experienced judges at preliminary hearings can see what is coming and will warn the Black Knight of the risk, advising settlement. This, just like advice from their lawyers if still retained, will go unheeded.

So the award is heftier than it might have been and there may be unusual costs orders made as the judge uses discretion to come down like a ton of bricks on the Black Knight. The predictable response? Denial. An appeal, or series of fruitless appeals, may follow at their cost as they blame everyone and everything; except themselves. At this point the situation can become increasingly absurd and I even recall one case where the opponent spouse, having comprehensively lost, appealed on the grounds that the judge had lied.

Consider the entirely limbless Black Knight, who shouts as King Arthur rides away in victory:

“Come back here and take what’s coming to you! I’ll bite your legs off!”

Some opponent spouses do move on, but for many, rage will still get the better of them. Losing was never part of the scenario. His or her sense of self will forever be that of the Black Knight.

Marilyn Stowe

The senior partner at Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in Europe, the Far East and the USA.

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4 comments

John Bolch - February 9, 2010 at 8:24am

Yes, we’ve all come across black knights, I’m afraid. Unfortunately, they are not as amusing as the Black Knight in the film.

Aidan Coogan - February 12, 2010 at 10:03am

The Black Knight is an excellent description and have no doubts that I could be classed in this category but what do you do when your solicitor when submitting a case cannot even get the cost of your Mortgage right or the value of Endowments. I totally accept they know the law but that doesn’t make them competant. If there was a decent redress system in place we the ‘customer’ may have a little more confidence in their ability to represent their client correctly.

Peter Jackson - February 17, 2010 at 10:45am

Unfortunately the “Black Night” more often or not will go to extreme lengths to achieve their goal, and their trump card can be their own children. My partner has unfortunately suffered an almost 3 year case todate involving stalling, the pleading hardship to the court, drip-drip of mis-information, court order after court order for finacial disclosure (and still not complied with), S37 orders to stop further borrowings to deplete assets, the sale of joint assets and received £0, Forensic Accountants fobbed off and not given what they required, turning to self representation as he “can nolonger afford legal representation,” and she is know responsible for a legal bill chasing £100K. With a final hearing date approaching this month, the Trump card by “Black Night” – accept derisory settlement “on my terms over the next 10years or the children (both U16) come out of private education and I’ll turn them against you” and said infront of the children!! – checkmate by “Black Night” – both solicitor and Council stumped. After rebuilding her relationship with her children over the last 4 years to what she has now, she can’t afford to call the bluff.

Marilyn Stowe - February 17, 2010 at 8:48pm

Outgunning the wife financially is often a tactic of the Black Knight. And, using the children against the wife is another.
I sympathise fully with you and your partner, but, I think if she caves in now based on anything other than the best legal advice, she will regret it. If you arent happy with the legal advise you are getting, and the disclosure given, it might be worth a second opinion.
Remember, parenting is tough but children sometimes are tougher than you think, and I would not give in to emotional blackmail. Your partner will get only one chance, and she shouldnt let it go at this late stage for the wrong reasons. Judges arent easily fooled.
Best wishes to you both.

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