London's reputation as the divorce capital of the super-rich has been earned through a number of headline-grabbing, hefty settlements being set in its courts – but the era of wealthy divorce tourists flocking to the U.K. may be coming to a close.
The Law Commission, which recommends changes in U.K. legislation to the government, is proposing that prenuptial agreements should be given full legal force and that a study be launched into whether a formula could be produced so that divorcing couples could reach financial settlement themselves.
The reforms are primarily aimed at reducing the cost of divorce for the general public, but could still affect settlements for the super-wealthy.
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Pre-nuptial agreements will be enforced and new settlements known as "qualifying" nuptial agreements, similar to pre-nups but set during the course of a marriage, have been mooted.
These would "be an important source of legal certainty for high net-worth couples who want to make clear and reliable arrangements for their wealth," according to Professor Elizabeth Cooke, the Law Commissioner for property, family and trust law.
Pre-nuptial agreements were already potentially enforceable after the country's Supreme Court ruled in favor of one in the case of German paper heiress Katrin Radmacher, but this would cement their status. The new proposals will not become legal for at least a year.
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The amount of leeway judges are allowed in making financial awards during divorces under U.K. law, which has been a key component in attracting wealthy jetsetters in the throes of divorce to the country, is set to be limited under the new proposals.
This could dent the buoyant market for family law firms in the capital. The amount of freedom given to its judges to be flexible with maintenance awards is the most important factor in London's popularity, according to a recent study by family law firm Withers.
This might mean that situations like that of former Miss Malaysia Pauline Chai, whose Malaysian tycoon husband Khoo Kay Peng is chairman of U.K. retailer Laura Ashley, would be less likely in the future. Chai is asking for £500 million, around half her husband's fortune, in London's courts, but Peng wants the case to be held in Malaysia, where settlements are usually smaller. Chai is currently battling against time to stop a Malaysian court hearing her husband's divorce petition.
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"We believe that married couples and civil partners should have the power to decide their own financial arrangements, but should not be able to contract out of their responsibilities for each other's financial needs, or for their children. The measures we are recommending would help couples understand and meet their financial responsibilities and, where appropriate, achieve financial independence," Cooke said in a statement.
The possibility of a formula for financial settlements, similar to jurisdictions like France and Germany, as well as some of the U.S. states -- where there is less chance of being awarded long-term maintenance and judges have less leeway in granting awards -- has also been opened up under the proposals.
At the moment, the U.K. courts are more likely to divide assets equally, even if one spouse has brought more financially to the marriage. They are also much harsher on spouses who try to hide their assets, as Scot Young, who was imprisoned after failure to disclose his assets during the course of his divorce, found out.
- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle. Twitter: @cboylecnbc.