The ‘Diva of Divorce’ Ayesha Vardag talks to Monaco Life about multi-million-euro splits, championing the No-Fault Divorce, and how being a divorced single mother made her a no-nonsense, compassionate lawyer.
Ayesha Vardag rose to fame for winning the landmark Supreme Court case Radmacher v Granatino in 2010, which changed the law to make prenuptial agreements legally enforceable in England and Wales.
Also among her many achievements, she championed the No-Fault Divorce rule that removes the need for couples to play the blame game, pioneered working practices that enable female employees to reach their highest potential in the male-dominated legal industry, and was recently awarded Woman of the Year at the GG2 Awards alongside fellow winner UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Dubbed the ‘Diva of Divorce’ by TIME magazine, Ayesha, who grew up in England, has acted for and against heirs and heiresses, tycoons, international footballers, celebrities and royalty.
She now divides her time between London law firm Vardags’ head office in London and her home in Monaco, where she lives with her husband and two children.
Monaco Life spoke with Ayesha about the intricacies of divorce and what couples who are considering separating should know, especially those living in Monaco.
Monaco Life: What are the top reasons for divorce today?
Ayesha Vardag: Every divorce is unique and there are always a lot of factors at play – relationships are complex and multi-faceted and often it’s a whole combination of internal and external stressors that eventually crack the foundations of the marriage. One of these ‘external stressors’ that we have witnessed more recently is the cost-of-living crisis, which we have seen play out across Europe. For some marriages, such economic strain has been the final straw.
What we’re also seeing as a reason for divorce is the awaited fallout from Covid and the pandemic’s impact on mental health. A lot of my clients tell me that their partner just isn’t the same after that deep, dark, uncertain period. Some marriages managed to endure that darkness, that uncertainty, and became stronger because of it – for others, the lack of everyday distractions, like work and socialising with friends, highlighted flaws and gaps in the marriage that couldn’t be patched over. As if lockdown revealed that, when forced to spend real quality time together, they were incompatible.
But, as I have always said: fundamentally, most divorces happen because the person you’re with is no longer the person that you married. In all of its possible forms, I’ll hear my clients describe how their partner has become a stranger. And this takes place on a whole spectrum of circumstances. Maybe their partner is spending more time at the office, found new friends or taken up new hobbies. On the other hand, they might be a born-again Christian, a different gender, changed – or revealed – their sexuality… Be it radical or subtle, what my clients are essentially telling me is that their partner has changed, and it is not a change that they agreed, consented to or wanted.
I guess, for many people, marriage symbolises a pillar of support and stability in an ever-changing, ever-chaotic world. They are the comfort, the tent-pegs, the refuge in times of uncertainty, discomfort, and turmoil. For this to be disrupted is unsettling, and in many cases, people just want out.
“It’s important to remember how difficult it is to sustain a marriage in the modern day.”
You were a champion of the No-Fault Divorce that came into effect in April 2022. What is that and why was this an important step in the divorce process for couples?
It’s important to remember how difficult it is to sustain a marriage in the modern day. We’re looking at 100-year lifespans now, if we’re lucky. A century is a very long time to keep coinciding with another being on the phases of one’s life.
It is for this reason that I championed No-Fault Divorce. Life is long and a relationship that may have been very good, and is between two very good people, can come to an end. There is no need for fault or victimhood. That’s what No-Fault Divorce is all about: two equals parting, amicably. That is what we should all be aiming for. Sometimes relationships just run their course. People reach the end of their compatibility with another person, and they move into the next phase.
What you can have after a divorce is a balanced, beautiful life in which you build a career, build time to develop yourself, build new relationships, and have the time and space to do that. Especially if you share the childcare. That’s how it should be. Marriage, and divorce, can both be beautiful.
What have been the challenges of rising to the top in a career often dominated by men?
Children-related sexism I have had in abundance – which is part of what made me found my own firm. When I was finding work, it was never a problem being a woman, it was a problem having children. I was told in one set of chambers: “Two children. That wasn’t on your CV.” [And] that I wouldn’t manage as a single mother at the Bar. Likewise, at the time I left Linklaters, I was offered a job at a top department at a top City firm, until I informed them I needed 10 days off for a C-section. I was then ghosted.
“I’m emotionally empathetic, but, putting on my lawyer hat, I combine that emotion with calm objectivity”
You are a divorcee yourself and became a single mother. How has this impacted the way you approach your job as a divorce lawyer?
My first divorce felt tragic at the time. It derailed everything I had always thought about my life. I had a sense of having really screwed it up, because I had chosen to exit the marriage. And then I had regrets and had gone to try and fix it, but it was too late. I felt huge despair – that moment of despair that people feel when they feel that they’ll never be happy again, and that they’ll never love anyone again or fancy anyone again, and it’s just over. I felt that sort of despair. And then you have to pick yourself up from that. And that’s when you cry yourself out and then you get up and get on with things. The truth is, finding my own way was the best thing that could possibly have happened to me. The silver lining of my divorce is that it gave me a life that is very much the life that I want to have.
What I love most about my job as a divorce lawyer is that I get to impart this wisdom onto my clients. I’m emotionally empathetic, but, putting on my lawyer hat, I combine that emotion with calm objectivity, helping my clients get the very best outcome for their divorce while encouraging fair and amicable negotiation. My career has always, essentially, been part lawyer, part therapist.
I believe you share your time between Dubai, Italy, West Sussex and now Monaco. How do you balance life, travel and work?
I spend several days a week working in London and the other two working remotely from my home in Monaco or Paris. When I’m in the UK, I wake up at 6am and walk to a private members club to exercise: [to] get the blood circulating and de-stress before the working day. I try to be the first person in the office by 8am.
Why did you decide to set up a Monaco desk at Vardags?
I specialise in cases with assets in the excess of £100 million. My clients tend to be entrepreneurs who have built vast businesses or funds. I have had numerous Monaco-based clients over the years with this kind of wealth, so it felt logical to set up a Monaco desk to specialise in the issues that our Monaco clients face.
“Every second counts as the party that files their divorce petition first can often have a significant advantage”
Why is it important to look at both England and Monaco jurisdictions in cases?
The difference in the financial outcome between Monaco and England can run to tens or hundreds of millions of pounds in the largest cases, and so anybody who has a British connection or who has a spouse with a British connection needs to take advice that looks at both jurisdictions. Every second counts as the party that files their divorce petition first can often have a significant advantage.
How does Monegasque divorce law differ from English or European law?
Monaco has a much more ‘needs’ approach to payouts on divorce, which is great for the richer party. England, on the other hand, shares out the fruits of the marriage between the parties regardless of who made the money or in whose name it is, as well as being very generous in assessing needs and very active at investigating the reality of the finances. Because of this, it is much better for the financially weaker spouse.
You recently got a lot of press for encouraging staff at your London office to shun business attire associated with “bankers and estate agents” and “bring your personalities to work”… “You can all be as wildly fabulous as you feel like”, I believe. What was the reasoning behind that decision and what reaction did it garner?
I want people to bring their humour, their creativity, their empathy [and] their emotions to work. The natural corollary for that is how they express themselves in their dress.
And being a lawyer is a largely client-facing role – the messages that you send off, whether that is power, formality, affluence, flamboyance or conservatism, are the first part of your dynamic when you’re engaging with someone. I want clients to feel invigorated, inspired and involved when they meet our lawyers because that’s what our lawyers are: great, exuberant, fantastic and interesting people. It’s not all about hard law and facts. Divorce is such a human area that it’s as much about the ability to connect with your client as it is about legal strategy.
What is your advice to couples who are considering a divorce?
As a family lawyer with a real eye to trying to avoid conflict and unpleasantness in family, my advice to couples who have decided to divorce is to do so as amicably and practically as possible, especially where children are involved. Like the poet Drayton said: “Since there’s no help, so let us kiss and part.”
People often fight about finances and sometimes about children, but there seems no reason to have to spend a lot of money and cause each other misery just to go through the process of parting legally once the decision has been made.
Every drop of acrimony can contaminate a future relationship, which has to be friendly and cooperative for the sake of the children, who need to be co-parented even if they have that in two homes rather than one.
Sign up for the Monaco Life newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.