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Sorrell v Sorrell [2005] EWHC 1717 (Fam)

Departure from yardstick of equality in ancillary relief award where ‘special contribution’ established.

Sorrell v Sorrell [2005] EWHC 1717 (Fam)

Family Division: Bennett J (29 July 2005)

Departure from yardstick of equality in ancillary relief award where 'special contribution' established.

This was an ancillary relief application following the breakdown of the parties' marriage after more than 32 years. At the time of the divorce, the parties had amassed net assets valued in the region of £75 million.

The husband was a businessman and the wife had adopted the role of 'homemaker' during the course of the marriage. The husband had shown remarkable business acumen throughout his career. The main question to be answered was whether the assets should be divided equally between the husband and the wife, or whether the yardstick of equality should be departed from (and, if so, to what extent) on the ground that, notwithstanding that the wife had made as full a contribution as possible, the husband's contribution was exceptional.

The judge reviewed the relevant authorities, notably the following dicta of Thorpe LJ in Lambert v Lambert [2002] EWCA Civ 1685, [2003] 1 FLR 139, on which the husband sought to rely: 'given the infinite variety of fact and circumstance, I propose to mark time on a cautious acknowledgement that special contribution remains a legitimate possibility but only in exceptional circumstances'.

The judge considered that the evidence in the case raised the serious possibility that the husband's contribution was capable of coming within the concept of 'special contribution'. This was supported by the view expressed that the husband had achieved in his business career what few others have done, and he was regarded within his field and the wider business community as one of the most exceptional and most talented businessmen.

Accordingly, whilst litigants and their advisers could not expect routinely to run a case of 'special contribution' successfully, the issue needed to be addressed in each individual case on its merits: in this case, the husband's genius accounted for the vast majority of the family's assets, and deserved to be recognised by an order for a 60/40 split, as to ignore it would create an unfair outcome.

Read the full text of the judgment here