The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom enforced an ante-nuptial agreement -- sometimes called a prenuptial agreement or 'prenup' -- between a wealthy German heiress and her relatively impoverished French ex-husband this week.
The decision marks a radical shift in British law. Previous rulings considered prenups contrary to public policy on the basis that they might encourage couples to split up.
Moreover, there has long been a feeling that such agreements necessarily entail the exploitation of the vulnerable and financially weaker party -- historically women who might have children to care for.
In this case, Katrin Radmacher, said to be worth £100m, and Nicolas Granatino signed a prenup in 1998 in Germany -- where such agreements have long been recognised -- under which they both waived claims against one another's estates if they split up.
Working as an investment banker at the time, presumably on good money, Mr Granatino declined the opportunity to take independent legal advice on the agreement.
The parties proceeded to have two children together but separated in 2006. By this time Mr Granatino had left banking and embarked on a much lower paid career (c. £30,000 p.a,) as a biotechnology researcher at Oxford University.
Ignoring the 1998 prenuptial agreement, Mr Granatino applied to the court for financial relief and, following high court proceedings in 2008, Ms Radmacher was ordered to pay him £5.85 million.
Mrs Justice Baron justified the decision by explaining it would be "manifestly unfair" to bind Mr Granatino to the prenup because he did not receive separate legal advice, Ms Radmacher did not disclose the extent of her wealth, and English law has never recognised prenups as legally binding.
On appeal last year, however, the award to Mr Granatino was cut to £1 million as a lump sum in lieu of maintenance. The appeal judges described Mrs Justice Baron's ruling as "plain wrong" and said English courts should give "decision weight" to prenups.
This year, Mr Granatino appealed to the Supreme Court, saying he'd face "financial catastrophe" if the prenup were enforced. He claimed he did not know what he was doing when he signed it, as he was "besotted" following a "whirlwind romance". The Court of Appeal decision was both "fundamentally unfair" and "sexist", he said.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court voted by a majority of 8 to 1 to dismiss the appeal. Lord Phillips said that there were no factors which rendered it unfair to hold Mr Granatino to the agreement.
"He is extremely able and his own needs will in large measure be indirectly met from the generous relief given to cater for the needs of his two daughters until the younger reaches the age of 22," he said. And Mr Granatino's decision to abandon his career in the city was "not motivated by the demands of his family but reflected his own preference".
Thus, Lord Philips concluded that: "Fairness did not entitle him to a portion of his wife's wealth ... when he had agreed he should not be so entitled when he married her".