In this Spotlight Profile, we are talking to Madeleine Booth, Barrister at Bernacchi Chambers in Hong Kong. Madeleine was recently named as one of the leading family and divorce law barristers in Hong Kong for 2021 by Doyles Guide.
Over the next year, we will touch base with Madeleine to discuss various hot topics in the area of matrimonial law and delve deeper into each subject and gain insight from her, as a barrister with expertise in the family law arena.
Madeleine, we spoke to you in September 2019 (pre-Covid) and you gave us a great rundown and overview of your work as a barrister in Hong Kong, pointing out the differences between a barrister and solicitor and the work that you do. Can you tell us how you have been since pre-Covid days and whether you have seen any changes in the matrimonial sector since the Covid-19 pandemic?
Since the last occasion, there’s certainly been a shift in the matrimonial sector as a consequence of the pandemic. To give just two key examples, there’s firstly been an unforeseeable, dramatic impact to various industries, which has had a knock-on effect on people’s income and perhaps even resulted in one or both spouses losing their job. Due to this, there’s been a marked increase in applications for variation of maintenance (monthly sums payable from one spouse to another, and/or for the benefit of the children of the family), as payments are no longer affordable or sustainable, either because of the loss of a job or a dramatic cut to an individual’s income.
Secondly, the situation caused by the pandemic has generally been a stressful, demanding time for families; both parents and children alike in many respects, and for a drawn out, extended period of time. Tensions and frustrations, exacerbated by limitations on travel and economic pressures, have led to fractures in marriages and co-parenting difficulties that have reportedly led to an increase in applications to the Family Court, whether it be for divorce, custody applications, relocation applications, or other relief. Unfortunately, the rise in cases coupled with the Family Court’s reduced operations for several months due to Covid-19 has resulted in an increase in delays for hearings. However, the judiciary is now working harder than ever to help clear the “backlog” caused.
What types of matrimonial disputes are you seeing more of with the changing social and economic climate in Hong Kong with the Covid-19 pandemic? Do you anticipate any changes post-Covid?
As I alluded to earlier, there’s been an increase in variation of maintenance and interim maintenance applications, meaning requests by one spouse to (generally) reduce the amount of periodic payments made by them to the other spouse and/or paid for the benefit of the children of the family. This is usually due to a change in the applicant spouse’s earnings or sudden loss of work. Hand in hand with this is the rise in enforcement procedures as, when one party can no longer afford to pay, they begin defaulting on payments as they fall due. As a result, the other spouse may take out an application to enforce these arrears of payments, whether it be by an Order 45 Rule 6 application, judgment summons procedure, or seeking a prohibition order (which prevents a party from leaving Hong Kong until the sum owed is paid).
I would also say that there’s been a rise in relocation applications, where one spouse wishes to leave Hong Kong and relocate to another jurisdiction with the children of the family. Again, these cases are on the rise because of the global shift in socio-economic environments caused by the pandemic. A party may need to relocate because of the loss of work opportunities in Hong Kong and the better prospects of work in another country. If a party loses their job, Hong Kong may no longer be affordable and they may need to relocate back to their country of origin to seek familial support, or where costs of living are lower, or for education opportunities/better quality of life for their children.
It’s been predicted that Covid-19 is here to stay for the foreseeable future. It is uncertain at present what changes will occur once the pandemic is brought under control, but hopefully greater stability for families in Hong Kong.
We want to continue our discussions with you on several hot topics in the area of matrimonial law, which we will do over the course of this upcoming year. To begin our series discussing hot topics in matrimonial law, let’s first tackle an area of great interest for those living in Hong Kong: marital agreements.
In Hong Kong, marital agreements are taken into consideration by the courts, but it’s not a guarantee that it will be followed. Do you see that changing going forward, especially as other jurisdictions rely heavily on these types of agreements?
There have been no developments that would suggest that the interpretation of marital agreements in Hong Kong will change in the foreseeable future. Hong Kong often looks to other commonwealth jurisdictions, predominantly the United Kingdom, when considering evolutions in the law. The shift in Hong Kong’s approach to marital agreements followed the 2010 landmark decision of Radmacher v Granatino  UKSC 42, in the UK (adopted in Hong Kong in the Court of Final Appeal decision SPH v SA (2014) 17 HKCFAR 364).
Currently, the approach to marital agreements in Hong Kong is that, whilst the Court is not obliged to give effect to nuptial agreements, they should give weight to them in circumstances where it is fair to do so. What will be considered “fair” depends on the facts of the particular case. In appropriate cases, the Court will hold the parties to their agreement and will not impose terms that it would otherwise have ordered were it not for the agreement. This is consonant with the current approach of the Courts in England.
Do Hong Kong courts take into consideration cross-jurisdiction agreements? For example, what happens if an individual who is married overseas, moves to Hong Kong and subsequently gets divorced in Hong Kong and a marital agreement prepared and signed overseas is at the center of the dispute?
The same considerations would apply to a nuptial agreement whichever jurisdiction it is made in. The Hong Kong Family Court will consider whether it is fair to give the agreement weight in accordance with the principles set out in Radmacher, including but not limited to (1) whether the parties to the agreement were properly advised; (2) whether there was full financial disclosure prior to the signing of the agreement; (3) whether there was any duress exerted on one of the parties to sign the agreement; and (4) whether any unforeseen circumstances have arisen since the agreement that would render it unjust to hold the parties to it.
Have you ever had to argue before the Courts in Hong Kong regarding a marital agreement dispute? In order to avoid future disputes with respect to marital agreements, what tips or advice can you give to those entering into these types of marital agreements?
Yes, I have been involved in cases regarding marital agreement disputes. A nuptial agreement is generally more likely to be accorded weight if it can be shown to be both substantively and procedurally fair. Three foundational suggestions in respect of pre-nuptial agreements would be as follows:
- Discuss the terms of the nuptial agreement well in advance of the marriage date (at least 28 days if not longer), which will assist in demonstrating that there was no duress or pressure on either party to sign the agreement in a hurry before the wedding date.
- Both parties should receive independent legal advice (the parties cannot share one lawyer to advise them) on the agreement and should enter into it with full understanding and appreciation of its terms.
- There should be sufficient disclosure to illustrate that the agreement was an informed decision.
It is very important to seek legal advice for a nuptial agreement from a qualified solicitor to ensure that its terms are substantively fair to both parties.
Thank you so much Madeleine for all your insight into this important topic. We look forward to speaking to you again to discuss other key topics of interest!
Madeleine’s practice encompasses both civil and criminal law, with a particular specialization in matrimonial work. Madeleine was recently named as one of the leading family and divorce law barristers in Hong Kong for 2021 by Doyles Guide.
In the Family Court, Madeleine has experience in contested financial and child related matters, and family related company and trust cases.
Having represented clients at Financial Dispute Resolution hearings, Children’s Dispute Resolution hearings, as well as at trial for preliminary issues (third party interests/property/companies), financial issues (MPS applications, ancillary relief trials) and child related matters (such as custody disputes, and applications under the Guardianship of Minors Ordinance), Madeleine’s experience is broad.
Madeleine is often called upon to make applications under s.17 of the MPPO, setting aside dispositions or applying for injunctions, on an urgent basis.
Madeleine also has experience in a number of other areas of legal practice, including civil litigation and criminal law. She has assisted senior counsel, and acted as sole legal counsel, in multiple hearings and trials at each level of court in Hong Kong, from its magistracies to the Court of Final Appeal. Madeleine appears in the High Court of Hong Kong regularly with respect to civil litigation matters, including trust related cases, injunctions, torts of harassment, intimidation, and unlawful means conspiracy, as well as summary judgment applications.
Madeleine’s experience extends beyond advocacy to include providing written opinions and legal advice, as well as assisting in mediations and arbitrations.