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Last Updated: Friday, 14 November, 2003, 15:38 GMT
Fears over wives' divorce rights
Las Vegas wedding chapel
Almost a third of British marriages break up
Barristers fear an attempt to harmonise European divorce laws could upset the property rights of British wives on divorce.

They fear EU proposals expected next year could turn the clock back for women's rights by 30 years.

This is because rules on the division of property in most EU member states can be less favourable to wives.

In contrast, a series of recent landmark judgements has increased the rights of wives in the UK.


The European Commission is expected to publish a green paper on matrimonial property rights next year.

In the UK, women have won significant rights to more equal divorce settlements in recent decades.

Under the current EU constitution, the UK currently has the right to opt out of proposals such as these.

But there is a concern at the Family Law Bar Association that the UK could easily lose out in any proposals, because its system is so different from most other European countries.

Actual harmonisation is some way off
Charlotte Bradley, SFLA

Since the early 1970s women have had a right to make a claim on property, even if they have not had any formal legal title on the home during the marriage.

And, more recently, a number of landmark judgements have led to greater recognition of a wife's contribution to her husband's business and working life in financial settlements.

Southern Europe

In contrast, there are no facilities to vary ownership of property on divorce in many other European countries.

For example, courts tend to split property based on "who owns what", rather than what is fair and who needs greater protection.

In the UK, the system is based on broad concepts of "need" and "fairness" rather than who is named on the property deeds.

The Solicitors' Family Law Association said women should not be concerned in the short-term.

Charlotte Bradley, Chair, SFLA International Committee, told BBC News Online: "The European Commission wants to see greater moves towards harmonisation of European family law systems but actual harmonisation is some way off.

"This would be an incredibly complex task given the huge variation in domestic laws throughout the EU. We will be keeping a close eye on developments."

Divorce 'makes men richer'
15 Jul 03  |  Business
Q&A: Divorce settlements
15 Nov 02  |  UK
Divorce money battles hot up
21 Aug 01  |  Business

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