Hong Kong court makes landmark divorce ruling

15th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Hong Kong's highest court has ordered that divorced couples must split their assets equally, a landmark ruling for the financial hub which could impact heavily on "big money" divorce cases.

Non-working spouses in Hong Kong, usually women, have traditionally been left with far less than half a couple's assets after they divorce, a key issue in the glitzy metropolis known for its super-rich.

"It's a landmark ruling," lawyer Peter Barnes, who represented the ex-wife in the test case on which the court ruled on Friday, told AFP.

"Any remnants of discrimination against non-earning persons, usually being the wife, are now being firmly washed away," he added.

Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal ruled that Barnes' client, an unidentified 47-year-old, was entitled to half of her ex-husband's assets, or about 2.68 million Hong Kong dollars (345,000 US dollars).

The decision upheld a lower court judgement in 2008. The woman had successfully appealed against a 2006 court ruling which granted her just one third of the couple's assets.

"To confine a non-working wife's award to the sum needed to meet her 'reasonable requirements' and to permit the husband to keep the remaining assets is patently unfair and discriminatory," Hong Kong's Justice Roberto Ribeiro wrote in last week's ruling.

Family lawyer Amy Liu told AFP the ruling "will be the benchmark for all divorce cases (in Hong Kong) from this point forward", adding that courts would be obliged to follow the decision in future.

"In this case, the court has confirmed that, even though the wife did not earn money, as a homemaker she has made contributions in other areas, thereby entitling her to half the couple's assets," she added.

Liu said the decision may prompt more people to seek pre-nuptial agreements.

The decision puts Hong Kong in line with Britain where an earlier ruling on asset-splitting sparked concern that London would become "the divorce capital of the world for aspiring wives".

Ribeiro dismissed concerns about richer divorce settlements for women in Britain.

"I do not consider the higher level of awards necessarily a bad thing since they may merely demonstrate the inadequacy of [previous] awards," he added.

But the court also said not every case would call for a strict 50/50 split of a couple's assets, with the marriage's duration a key factor.

"The duration of the marriage is highly relevant and an equal division is more likely to be sustained after a long, rather than a short, marriage," Ribeiro said.

In a separate divorce case on Friday, the same court ruled that the ex-wife of a local tycoon's son should receive only one third of his assets, saying the award "reflects the shortness and relatively unproductive nature of the (three-year) marriage".

© 2010 AFP

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