Ryan Giggs must follow in the footsteps of a bin-liner entrepreneur and convince a divorce hearing of something that Manchester United fans take for granted: that he is a genius.
Giggs will argue in the high court that he should be awarded more than half of the £40m fortune he shares with his wife because of his “special contribution” to their marital millions. If the 43-year-old’s legal team can convince a judge that this contribution possesses the spark of genius then he could prevail, under a precedent set by the man who earned his fortune from introducing black plastic bin liners to the UK.
Giggs’s lawyers this week told the high court that they will call witnesses to prove that he is a genius and contributed far more to his 10-year marriage than his spouse Stacey Cooke. They argued this should trump law that states homebuilding and companionship are of equal importance to breadwinning.
However, one legal expert warned that the strategy is high-risk. “No judge likes the idea of people spending huge amounts to legally brag about their own self-imagined genius,” said David Ruck, a partner and divorce specialist at law firm Gordon Dadd. “The courts are very reluctant to describe what a special contribution is”, adding that it has only been acknowledged in a handful of cases where “the sums are massive”.
If Giggs succeeds, he will be one of only a handful of men to have successfully convinced an English court that his financial contribution to marriage should overrule the “yardstick of equality” which means the lesser-earning spouse is entitled to half of the assets in a divorce.
In the past fortnight, two other multimillionaire husbands – American banker Randy Work and Laura Ashley chairman Khoo Kay Peng – have failed to have their genius recognised by the courts. Work, 49, was forced to pay £72m to his ex-wife, while 78-year-old Khoo was required to settle for £64m.
The precedent that Giggs is relying on was set in 2001 when the court of appeal judges ruled that Michael Cowan could keep 62% of the £12m bin liner fortune he shared with his wife because “his contribution, in terms of entrepreneurial flair, inventiveness and hard work, was truly exceptional”.
Since that ruling, many wealthy men have also tried to claim they are geniuses and should also be able collect more than half of their family’s finances, but few have succeeded in convincing judges that they are as exceptional as Cowan.
Sir Martin Sorrell of advertising firm WPP was awarded 60% of the £75m joint assets in his 2005 divorce from Sandra, his wife of 33 years. Mr Justice Bennett ruled that Sorrell was “regarded within his field and the wider business community as one of the most exceptional and most talented businessmen”. Bennett said the “true explanation for this extraordinary success story is that the husband does possess the ‘spark’ or ‘force’ or ‘seed’ of genius”. And with that the so-called “genius” clause was born.
The next year, insurance magnate John Charman was awarded 63.5% of the £131m marital fortune because “the wealth created is of extraordinary proportions from extraordinary talent and energy”. In 2014, Jamie Cooper-Hohn, ex-wife of Chris Hohn, the billionaire founder of hedge fund The Children’s Investment Fund Management, was awarded just 36% of their $1.5bn fortune.
But far more husbands have tried and failed to invoke the genius clause. This week, American private equity tycoon Work failed to convince the court of appeal to recognise his genius and grant him more than half of a £140m fortune, which included a £30m mansion in Kensington, west London, complete with swimming pool and fitness centre, and an £18m ski lodge in Aspen, Colorado.
The court of appeal agreed with an earlier ruling that it would be “unjustifiably gender-discriminatory to make an unequal award. This was a marriage of two strong and equal partners over 20 years.”
Ruling on their divorce in 2015, Mr Justice Holman told the businessman that his wealth contribution was not “wholly exceptional” and rejected his claim to be a financial “genius”. “I personally find that a difficult, and perhaps unhelpful, word in this context,” Holman said. “To my mind, the word ‘genius’ tends to be overused and is properly reserved for Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Einstein and others like them.”
In Cowan’s case, his legal team did not stint on claiming the word “genius” applied to their client. Speaking at a court of appeal hearing in 2001, Cowan’s lawyer compared his client to “a popular musician who achieves worldwide success, or a novelist with international bestsellers.” Michael Pointer QC added: “These are people who have the spark of genius, the Midas touch, and Mr Cowan falls into that category. He was the man who introduced bin liners to this country. He realised the potential.”
Ruck said the more times the clause is defeated the harder it will become to convince judges that anyone is so much of a genius that they should be granted more than half the assets. “There will be more, although it does require fairly litigious people, with money to pay the lawyers,” he said. “But, then again, if you have £175m, it may not matter a huge amount.”
London is widely regarded as the divorce capital of the world because of English law’s regard for homebuilding as of equal value to financial earnings. But it has only been so since 2000, when a landmark divorce case was taken to the House of Lords. Pamela White complained that she had originally been granted just £800,000 of the £4.6m farming fortune she had made with her husband Martin White. “The Lords said to family lawyers, ‘look you’ve been getting this wrong, you should be starting at a 50/50 split and then looking to see if there is any good reason to depart from equality,” said Jo Edwards, a partner and head of family law at London law firm Forsters.
Edwards said that before White v White, ex-wives of wealthy men could not hope for anything approaching parity. Settlements were based on so-called Duxbury tables, which calculate a wife’s “reasonable needs” for the rest of her life.
Lawyer’s handbook At a Glance shows that in “Big Money Awards” before White v White, wives were granted as little as 2.5% of the marital fortune. Katina Dart, wife of burger-box billionaire Robert Dart, was, in 1996, awarded just £10m of the couple’s £400m fortune after 15 years of marriage. Lady Caroline Conran was granted 12.3% of the £85.7m assets in her 1997 divorce from designer Sir Terence Conran.
Edwards said she expected the super-rich to continue trying to play the genius card despite Work’s failure, as the financial benefits of succeeding can be so great. “But Giggs is going to find it hard running,” she said. “And full and frank disclosure: I’m a massive Manchester United fan, so I do think he is a genius”