Pre-nuptial agreements increasing in the UK

Heiress Katrin Radmacher's pre-nuptial agreement was upheld in the Court of Appeal, despite not being legally binding in the UK

Law firms are reporting an increase in the use of pre-nuptial agreements as it appears as though they will soon be legally binding in England and Wales.

London law firm Hugh James has reported a 50 per cent increase in requests for information about the agreements, where couples decide in advance how they would divide up their assets in the event of divorce.

The firm is now reporting approximately 300 inquiries into pre-nuptials per year.

This development followed a move by the government's legal reform advice unit, the Law Commission, which suggested that pre-nuptial agreements should be legally binding as part of a wider reform of marriage law.

In a report on the need for reform, the Law Commission described the current system as "inaccessible" to many members of the public.

They also pointed out that because of the lack of clarity in the law, and the inconsistency which has been seen in many courts, there is in effect a postcode lottery in matters relating to divorce proceedings.

One suggestion from the Law Commission has been the introduction of an online calculator to help those considering divorce see how their assets might be divided up if they took things to court.

Pre-nups are already legally accepted in Scotland. In England and Wales, the 2010 Supreme Court victory for German Heiress Katrin Radmacher over banker-turned-academic Nicolas Granatino, has marked a big shift towards making them legally binding.

While initially Mr Granatino and Ms Radmacher had entered into an agreement, binding in Germany, to make no financial claims on each other's estates, Mr Granatino changed his mind.

The British courts ultimately decided that his demand for £5.85 million per year from Ms Radmacher's estate was not acceptable in light of the pre-nuptial agreement, and reduced it to £1 million.

Currently, judges in England and Wales can take such agreements into consideration as part of their decision, provided that the arrangements are seen to be fair and reasonable. However, the courts are still the ones who hand out the financial arrangements. The agreements themselves only advise the judge's decision.

The Law Commission recommends a kind of arrangement known as a "qualifying nuptial agreement" whereby a couple can, either before or during a marriage, specify how their funds would be divided in the event of divorce, or would put particular items outside the realms of negotiation.

While this arrangement is supported by the government's legal experts, religious figures have expressed concern.

The Catholic Bishop of Shewsbury has previously said in The Times that pre-nuptial agreements have the potential to make marriage vows devoid of "all meaning".

Andrea Williams, chief executive and co-founder of the Christian Legal Centre, said in the Telegraph: "In the past when we have simplified the law to make it easier to divorce all that has happened is that we have had more divorce.

"This is a fundamental undermining of what marriage is which is a commitment for life for richer for poorer, for better for worse, in sickness, in health until death us do part."

Religious commentator and theologian Vicky Beeching said to Christian Today that she was "sceptical" about the use of pre-nuptial agreements as a way to make marriage any better.

"When you become one person in the way that the Bible talks about with regard to marriage, clinging to possessions and fighting over them seems out of step with that paradigm," she said.

"The sense of holding back on things isn't something that Christ models. Marriage is a model for Christ's relationship with the Church and since he laid down his life for his Church, we shouldn't really be thinking about holding things back for ourselves as we enter into marriage."