News that the Supreme Court has granted permission to appeal the Court of Appeal decision in Mills v Mills provides a perfect opportunity to review the facts and developments of the case to this point.

Mills v Mills – the complicated story so far

The 2017 Court of Appeal decision in the case of Mills v Mills sets down, subject to the outcome of the Supreme Court appeal of the case, some potentially important precedents in terms of spousal maintenance obligations.

The couple, Maria and Graham Mills, were married for 13 years. In the earliest years of the marriage Mrs Mills worked as a self-employed beauty therapist and Mr Mills, once he had completed his qualifications, was a self-employed surveyor—although he had undertaken paid work during his training period. After having a son Maria worked as an estate agent and briefly in Mr Mill's surveying business before the couple split.

In the later years of the marriage, Mrs Mills developed health problems, which were debilitating at times, and as a consequence was unable to maintain her previous workload. The two separated in 2000, divorced in 2002 and subsequently agreed to sell the family home. Mrs Mills claimed that she was unable to work despite seemingly living an active life. Under the terms of their financial settlement agreement, Mrs Mills received £230,000 from the house sale. This was on the understanding that she would purchase a mortgage-free house to provide a home for herself and the couple's child. Mr Mills retained all capital and assets in his business. A monthly sum of £1,100 spousal maintenance was agreed for the duration of their joint lives or until such time as Mrs Mills remarried, either of them died, or the Court made a further order.

As time went on, the financial positions of the parties involved changed. Mrs Mills returned to work, Mr Mills remarried and had another child, a son. As such, Mr Mills made an application to end spousal maintenance payments, arguing that he should be able to end an arrangement that was reached in the past and no longer reflected the reality of his or his ex-wife's respective lives. In response, Maria cross-applied to increase the maintenance payments to £2,000 per month.

During the 2015 proceedings Mrs Mills claimed that she could now only work two days a week due to a new medical condition. It also became apparent that Mrs Mills had spent all the money that was intended to be used to provide a family home. Over a period of seven years the initial sum of £230,000 was unwisely invested and as a result of this, and accrued debts, Mrs Mills had to move into rented accommodation, the cost of which she said now formed part of her basic needs.

Although the family court judge found that Mrs Mills could in fact work four days per week, it was concluded that even if she worked more she would not be able to find additional clients. He therefore ruled that the maintenance payments should remain the same.

Mrs Mills then took the case to the Court of Appeal claiming that she could not meet her basic needs.

In 2017 the Court of Appeal ruled that the spousal maintenance payments should continue and Mr Mills was ordered to increase the sums he paid his ex-wife as she was experiencing a significant shortfall and was unable to meet her basic living costs.

Now, the case relating to the proper approach to applications to vary periodical payments will be heard in the Supreme Court. This was granted on the sole ground relating to provision already having been made in the capital settlement for the respondent's housing costs and whether the Court of Appeal erred in their consideration when raising the periodical payments.

Important questions

The case of Mills v Mills raises some serious and important questions. For example, when, if ever, is it reasonable for spousal maintenance payments to end, particularly bearing in mind the respective financial positions, lifestyles and other personal circumstances of the parties involved?

Furthermore, should Courts seemingly, as some critics have it, encourage dependency of one party on another, or should divorcing parties be encouraged to work towards a position of financial autonomy from the outset?

The case also throws a spotlight on the frequent financial disparities seen between the respective positions of divorcing spouses. All too often wives (and sometimes husbands) depend financially on their husbands (and sometimes wives) for the duration of a marriage but provide invaluable (and financially immeasurable) contributions in other ways – for example in terms of housework, childcare and domestic administration duties. In such cases, is it reasonable to expect the less well-off spouse to become financially independent, particularly as they may have only limited career prospects or may still be caring for children.

Historically, the English and Welsh judicial system has been reluctant to make long-term forecasts or rulings regarding maintenance payments whenever possible. Indeed, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 stipulates that the Court should seek to end a married couple's financial claims against each at the earliest possible moment.

Furthermore, courts have tended to take the position that if spousal maintenance is deemed necessary, it should be for a limited timeframe and it should be clear that the payee is in need and that the payer has the capacity to meet that need.

Some legal commentators, including family lawyers, have expressed concern that the Court of Appeal decision in Mills v Mills could lead many more well-off spouses to feel pressured to seek a clean break on divorce, even if this is not necessarily suited to their or their ex-spouse's circumstances. It may also lead to some spouses seeking to evade payments by hiding or complicating their wealth and financial arrangements.

One interesting and relevant case is SS v NS (Spousal Maintenance) [2014] EWHC 4183 (Fam). In his ruling on this case, Mostyn J clarified some useful principles. Based on his comments, it is reasonable to foresee that the law will see an increasing number of cases placing the emphasis on defining "acceptable degrees of hardship", "transitioning to independence', and the imposition of "term orders" seeking to limit the scope and length of spousal maintenance payments. These perhaps, are some of the principles that Mr Mills' lawyers will be hoping to explore in greater depth when Mills v Mills reaches the Supreme Court.

Crowdfunding for legal matters

Interestingly, Graham Mills is using JustGiving to help crowdfund his case. He says that he is "raising funds to create a fairer legal precedent for men in divorce" having branded the current judicial system in such family law matters as "outmoded and dangerous".

Mr Mills said, in a statement to Oratto:
"I am hoping that at the Supreme Court there will finally be justice based on fairness and equality. It cannot be right that I am expected to pick up the bill for my ex-wife's housing costs and other expenses when she had sufficient money to buy a house outright and I have had no control over her spending. I believe it is wrong that I am expected to work a normal working week whilst Mrs Mills has been excused from working more than three days a week, when it has been found that she is capable of doing so. It cannot be right that I am expected to fund the lifestyle of someone who is capable of working and funding their own needs. The precedent that the appeal court ruling has set is dangerous and far reaching for anyone who is currently paying maintenance or who is going to get divorced."
So far Mr Mills has reached more than £11,000 of his £50,000 funding target.

Mills' situation has become a high-profile talking point and has garnered significant support and column inches. Baroness Deech spoke out in the Telegraph about, what she sees as, the current outdated laws, saying, "If there is one thing that stops women getting back on their feet and being treated seriously and equally at work, it is the assumption throughout the legal system that once she is married, she is somehow disabled and incapable of ever managing on her own. It is a very serious impediment to equality. [The Mills v Mills] case shows how unethical, unpopular and out-of-date the law is".