Suffolk: a good place to hide divorces


England doesn’t do big family law reform with major debates in Parliament and huge media scrutiny.  We got that habit out of our system in 1996 with a disastrous piece of legislation intended to introduce no-fault divorce.  We do our reforms through the back door, when nobody is really looking, disguised as administrative and procedural changes, and in any event not realising at the time the significance of what is happening. 


Paul Coleridge, a recently retired High Court judge, has said the biggest change in divorce in recent decades wasn’t the semi-non-fault divorce law of 1969 but the procedural change of the so-called special procedure introduced in the mid-1970s so that on an uncontested divorce no one had to go to court.  It reduced or removed the personal element, perhaps even the inconvenience factor, of going to court to prove a case by giving evidence even if unopposed.  From this small step, many other divorce reforms flowed


England has had debates and Royal Commissions over many decades about the creation of a family court.  And nothing happened.  Then faced with the austerity budget cuts in the family justice system, the new President of the Family Division quietly, efficiently and effectively introduced unified family courts in April 2014.  Different levels of judges sitting in one combined family court with unified powers, allocations to appropriate specialisations and considerable rationalisations of procedure and process.


Hot on those heels comes another change.  At one level seemingly only administrative and mere paperwork.  At another level of potential significances.  All divorces around the country, England and Wales, will be issued and dealt with by only half a dozen centres.  Except in special cases, no more issuing in a local divorce court of which there are about 150 or more.  The divorce process would be completely dealt with at the centre.  Ancillary financial claims would be more localised, in a separate court location nearer to the parties, thus bringing closer the day when English divorce and financial matters are fully independent and without any MP having a say in the matter! 


For London and the south-east, this centre is Bury St Edmonds in Suffolk, a quiet country town hitherto not known for its high divorce rate per head of population.  The divorce problem is being quietly sent to the relative country obscurity of Suffolk.  Perhaps no one will then notice.  Certainly nothing has appeared in the media or any questions raised in Parliament. 


It brought back to my mind another divorce almost 80 years ago, October 1936, when divorce proceedings were deliberately sent out of London to Suffolk for the purpose of obscurity and non-publicity. 


Wallis Simpson, an American, had married Ernest Simpson in 1928 at the Chelsea register office.  It was her second marriage.  They lived in London and had no children.  In her divorce petition she alleged that in the autumn of 1934 there was a change in her husbands manner towards her.  He became indifferent, went away alone and stayed away at weekends.  At around Easter 1936, she received information on which she relied for the adultery petition.  A hotel waiter at the Hotel de Paris in Bray on Thames in Berkshire, accompanied by another waiter and a hotel porter had seen Mr Simpson in circumstances leading to a reasonable conclusion, or at least as the fiction went, that adultery had occurred.  So why Suffolk?


As well known, Wallis Simpson was then conducting an affair with the Prince of Wales, the eldest son of and next in line to the throne after King George V.  It is reasonably believed that the well-connected Mr Simpson, fully aware of the affair of his wife and not wanting to create any scandal or rock the establishment boat, agreed to do the honourable thing and give his wife a divorce.  The American media were already running frequent stories in the American press about Wallis Simpson and her affair.  But the English media were then far more circumspect in what they published.  But some things they could not ignore.  A divorce in the London divorce courts involving potential royal connections would have been fully reported.


Wallis Simpson was instructing a solicitor, Theodore Goddard, who had set up his own practice, Theodore Goddard and Co.  Well before the days of specialisation, he undertook a variety of work which then included the occasional divorces; what would now be described as celebrity big money divorces.  It was my good fortune very many years later to be the head of the family law department of the firm which bore his name for several decades, now known as Addleshaw Goddards.


Theodore Goddard realised that to minimise the risk of adverse publicity, the divorce had to occur well out of town, away from London.  In a place which would not attract publicity, to which hardly any profile lawyers or journalists attended and to minimise the impact.  But there is only so far that someone like Wallis Simpson would travel.  So Felixstowe, then a small harbour although now a major container port, on the Suffolk coast became her home for a number of months.  Her recently published letters disclose her loneliness and unhappiness at having to wait her time there for the purposes of local jurisdiction.  The divorce proceedings were commenced in the Ipswich Assizes.  They came before Mr Justice Hawke on 27 October 1936.  Any local solicitors happening to attend at the court that day would have had a major shock and immediately realised something was going on.  Leading counsel attended at the short, uncontentious and unopposed hearing, specifically Mr Norman Birkett KC who was very probably the leading barrister of the decade, perhaps even the leading barrister of the 20th century.  He had junior counsel of course and senior instructing solicitors.  Mr Simpson was not represented by counsel in court.


The decree was granted on the undefended suit and with costs.  It was published in a small piece in a couple of papers, with the headline: Society divorce case.  But it was certainly not the widespread publicity that could have caused so much damage; albeit the damage occurred later leading to the abdication when the Prince of Wales on the death of his father had become, for a very short time at least, King Edward VIII.  The choice of Suffolk served its purpose.  The divorce was barely known outside the Suffolk borders.


So from an auspicious history in one of England’s most famous divorces there now arrives in Suffolk all of the divorces for the south-east of England.  A good place to hide divorces?  Are the citizens of Suffolk aware that another chapter in the family law social history of this country is about to open in their county?

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