It has been announced that the prime minister, Boris Johnson and his wife, Marina Wheeler have reached an financial settlement regarding their divorce, which has been subsequently approved at a private court hearing in London.
We are not aware of the details of the agreement between the couple, but in order to reach such an agreement, there will have been extensive negotiations between the parties and their respective solicitors. Once the parties have reached an agreement, this will be formally recorded in a consent order, which sets out the details of the agreement between the parties, with the intention of ending the ongoing financial proceedings and providing clarity on the parties’ future arrangements.
Any agreed consent order will need to be submitted to court, where a judge will then consider whether the terms of the agreement are fair to both parties and whether to approve the agreement. As for the prime minister and his wife, it can take the court as little as 10 minutes to approve a consent order, without the need for either of the parties or their solicitors to be in attendance.
The story does highlight that even in the most high profile or potentially complex of cases, that it is perfectly possible to reach an agreement in this manner. If parties are not able to reach an agreement in this way, the matrimonial finance process is very accommodating towards the parties reaching a settlement without the need for a judge to impose a settlement.
The majority of cases settle at what is called the Financial Dispute Resolution Hearing, or FDR, which is the second court hearing in the matrimonial finance process. At this hearing, parties are given the opportunity to make settlement proposals and negotiate an agreement, with the support and advice of their solicitor and/or barrister. An FDR is “without prejudice”, which means that any offers made by either party cannot be referred to at a final hearing. This is to encourage parties to make the best efforts to compromise and reach a position that both parties can move forward with. If the parties are able to reach an agreement at the FDR, they can draw up the details in a consent order and submit this to the judge for approval on the same day.
It has been reported that this will now leave Mrs Wheeler free to apply for decree absolute, which is the final court order in the divorce process and will formally end the marriage. While a consent order formally concludes the financial arrangements between a divorcing couple, the decree absolute is necessary to end the marriage itself. Following our Freedom of Information request, we know that 65% of divorces in England and Wales are not accompanied by a financial order at the time of the divorce – very often a couple will prioritise obtaining their divorce and will informally divide their assets between them without a Court order formally dealing with financial matters. If parties were to divorce without concluding an agreement on finances, then a former spouse would remain free to make claims on the parties’ future assets following the divorce.