Legal

EXCLUSIVE EXPERT VIEW: Media Reporting Lessons From Cooper-Hohn Divorce Case

William Healing, Kingsley Napley, Family Law Partner, 25 September 2014

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The author of this article is William Healing, family law partner at Kingsley Napley. He is writing about a recent high-profile law case raising major issues for wealth planning.

The author of this article is William Healing, family law partner at Kingsley Napley. He is writing about a recent high-profile law case raising major issues for wealth planning. The views expressed aren’t necessarily the same as those of this publication but the editors here are pleased to share these expert insights.

Media reporting of divorce financial cases is troublesome. It is difficult for the parties, who are often high-profile as well as high-net-worth, their advisors and the media.

Do wealthy parties, as the judge put it in this summer’s case of Cooper-Hohn v  Hohn (the divorce of the billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist by his American chief executive wife), want their finances splashed in the newspapers on the nation’s breakfast tables the next morning? The answer is of course not, but in practice these days they rarely have a choice.

Traditionally, press members and the public were not allowed to cross the threshold of the court-room door in family law cases. But a new open door policy introduced in 2009 permitted accredited members of the media to sit in on family law cases. The brother of Diana Princess of Wales, Earl Spencer, together with his wife tried unsuccessfully to exclude the press from the court room when the new rules arrived. Simply being a public figure, the Court said was no justification to shutting the door to the media.

The trouble is deeper, however, than whether journalists can always come in to court. No-one is yet clear on how much they can actually report. The door is therefore ajar rather than fully open.

This all provides a recipe for confusion when the media want to report big-ticket high value divorce cases so it’s hardly surprising that Sir Chris Hohn tried to test the parameters.

In July this year his lawyers made an application for a ban on press reporting of his financial details which were necessarily on the table as part of the financial settlement of his divorce.  The press were already aware of and had reported the basic facts of the marriage- vast personal wealth in excess of £1 billion – likely to make the divorce settlement the biggest in English legal history. The question was how much detail about his assets and company finances the press could report.

In the event the Judge (Mrs Justice Roberts) recognised there was a legitimate public interest in the case due to the Husband pleading exceptional contribution (he argued that his exceptional talent (“genius”) justifies an extra share of the assets over and above 50 per cent which is often now the norm in English divorce awards since the House of Lords decision [White] in 2000). She refused to impose a “blanket ban” on the reporting of the case but prohibited coverage of certain “confidential and commercially sensitive financial information”.

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