When opponent spouses become the Black Knights of divorce
The 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.
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Marilyn Stowe is the senior partner in Stowe Family Law, which has offices in Yorkshire, Cheshire and London. With more than 30 years’ experience handling divorce cases and family law proceedings she is regarded as one of the most formidable and sought after divorce lawyers in the UK. In 2012, Marilyn became one of the first solicitors to qualify as a family law arbitrator.
All persons mentioned in the scenarios are fictitious: details have been deliberately changed in order to protect identities and other confidential circumstances of my clients. All advice and information on this blog including posts written by guest authors, is given only as a general guide to the operation of the law on the date of publication. Readers must place no reliance whatsoever on the content of this blog and must always obtain their own legal advice. Marilyn Stowe, Stowe Family Law LLP and guest authors accept no liability whatsoever arising as a result of reliance upon its content.
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