20 March 2018
Withers represented Sir Martin Sorrell, chairman and founder of advertising giant WPP, in his divorce and financial proceedings. The case was a landmark decision relating to the departure from equality based on the husband’s “exceptional contribution” in circumstances where the wealth had been generated during the long marriage.
After a marriage of 32 years the wife, Lady Sorrell, was seeking determination of her claims on divorce. There were very substantial assets available for division worth in excess of £100m. The division of labour during the marriage had been conventional in that the husband was responsible for generating the family’s fortune, while the wife’s contribution had been domestic in raising the family.
The 2002 case of Lambert had put an end to a line of authority suggesting that if a breadwinner had made a special contribution, there should be a departure from equal division in their favour. The Court of Appeal said that in Lambert that the so-called doctrine of “special contribution” would only come into effect in exceptional circumstances. Sorrell was the first case post-Lambert to resurrect the principle of special contribution
The High Court Judge decided that Sir Martin Sorrell was a uniquely and exceptionally talented entrepreneur and businessman. These talents had led to the creation of enormous wealth. It would have been unfair not to recognise this contribution to the marriage by a departure from equality in the husband’s favour. The Court therefore ordered a clean break settlement (with no ongoing maintenance payments) with Sir Martin receiving 60% of the assets and Lady Sorrell 40%.