Meet the First Wives Club

They were all married to multimillionaires, but each of their relationships ended in the bitterest of divorces. Now these women have banded together to create a formidable pressure group

Theyre not mine, theyre not mine, honks Michelle Young as she totters forward on a pair of unfathomably high heels. They were lent by someone at Christian Louboutin who appreciates what I am doing.

Leaning in conspiratorially, she whispers: Its a big fight, right, Daniel? Big stuff This is Mario.

No, corrects the young man who had appeared out of her cab, Im Marco.

Oh, sorry. Yes, I was just talking to Mario. This is Marco. Marcos presence is never explained.

Nothing is straightforward with Michelle Young. From the 51 -year-olds conspiracy hypothesis( more of that to go) to her shoes, everything is oh so dramatic, to the point of laugh-out-loud comedy. It might be why a Channel 4 documentary crew is hovering in the background as we talk.

Michelle first attained headlines( in the Daily Mail mainly) when a judge lifted reporting restrictions in 2009 on her highly dogged make further efforts to grab her rightful share of her husbands suspected APS4 00 m fortune.

Property developer Scot Young had walked out on their 11 -year marriage three years earlier, declaring that the collapse of a big Russian deal had left him penniless. His spouse wasnt having it. Her contention was, and still is, that Young, who counted Sir Philip Green among his friends, was worth a few billion pounds at least.

Michelle Young: After 10 years of litigation what Ive been left with is no more than an empty paper bag. Photograph: Amelia Troubridge for the Observer

The courts heard that Michelle hired eight private detectives to track Youngs movements, working in changes. He, in turn, repeatedly lied about his true wealth, funnelling it into offshore entities, even being jailed for six weeks for flagrant and deliberate contempt of court. After 65 hearings, and millions frittered away in legal fees, Michelle was awarded APS2 0m in 2013. The magistrate complained, however, that extremely serious allegations have been bandied around like confetti. Michelle reasserted that justice had not been done. Woman who tells APS2 0m divorce bargain isnt enough! reported the Mail .

Since then Scot Young, who combated medication problems and suffered from bipolar affective disorder, has died. Well, that instead underplays it. He was impaled on railings after he fell from a fourth-floor Mayfair flat.

Michelle has suggested there might be something more sinister to the incident than mental ill health. She also complains that “shes never” received a penny of the award because he had concealed it all away. Oh, and she is facing an APS1 1.2 m legal action by the backers who money her divorce battle on the grounds that instead of using their funds to pay for the costs of her litigation, she appears to have use some of the money for what they describe as her champagne lifestyle.

But the specifics of Michelles case arent why we are meeting, or why the Channel 4 team is following her around. It might sound hard to believe, but Michelle believes there are some wider issues in her extraordinary lawsuit that should attain us all fret. And she has set up the portentously named Michelle Young Foundation( she also refers to it as the First Wives Club) to highlight them.

Fair shares: campaigner Michelle Young and her ex-husband Scot Young leaving tribunal in 2013. He succumbed last year after falling from his Mayfair flat. Photo: PA

Asked to explain her objectives over a fizzy water at an unpretentious tavern the Constitution in Pimlico Michelle robotically intones without stopping for breath: The reason I set it up is that I have had 10 years of litigation in which I have had to borrow money from litigation funders, on huge returns, trying to get the justice I deserve. What I have been left with is a judgement order that is no more than an empty paper bag. There is a pause. Impressive, she mutters to herself.

Perhaps, but it doesnt sound like a rallying call to the masses. Some further questioning elicits even stronger aims: to construct the courts go after super-rich men who try to hide their wealth through sophisticated financial engineering, both from their spouses and the taxman; and to cut down on the legal costs at the family courts that can often lead to whole estates often quite modest ones over which a man and former wife are fighting to then be blown on fees for their lawyers. That is more substantial. And Michelle has three other big characters behind her cause.

First to join us at the Constitution is Janna Kremen, 48, former wife of a Russian oligarch. Janna gratified her husband, Boris Agrest, in 1988 when she worked as a military officer in the Soviet Ministry of Defence. He started off as a administrator of a Russian pop group but became a financier with an extraordinary scope of business interests. Janna been shown that the foundations of his massive wealth date back to the wild west years that was early post-communist Russia.

Janna was awarded a divorce payout of APS1 2.6 m in 2012. But that was an emotionally straining and financially crippling five years after she had demanded a divorce from the husband she describes as aggressive, only to be told by him that technically that had already happened without her knowing( in Israel its a long story ), and that due to a post-nuptial agreement she had signed she should move out of the family home( a APS9m manor in Surrey) and be given merely APS1m from his estimated APS3 0m fortune.

The ex-factor: Michelle Scot Young on their wedding day

When she took her ex-husband to tribunal, he further claimed he was penniless, earning just APS1 50 a month from a Russian business. But Janna wasnt having it. After all, shed insured oodles of money up close. Before we moved to the UK, Janna says in a thick Russian accent, I was deeply involved in his business because I was doing the book-keeping, the bank accounts, his partners accounts. I was connected, she told. I was so smiling when I was watching The Wolf of Wall street the other day. Did you see it? Remember how they had suitcases with fund? That is how I travelled to Switzerland. She giggles. Can you do this now? It is impossible, isnt it?

The court heard that Jannas husband, then 43, who had taken up with a 23 -year-old, nevertheless sought to evict her and his three children from their home and leave them in fiscal ruin. He was, the judge said, actuated by extreme malice.

Not only was her husband lying about being penniless and unemployed evidence of various business interests in Panama, Lichtenstein and Belize helped but the post-nup she had signed was a sham, the court concluded. Agrest was described by the judge as a serious and serial nondiscloser determined to do down his wife by pollute means. But he then ran back to Russia, leaving the courts pretty powerless to enforce her awarding. Agrest has since been described by the high court as a fugitive from justice. His ex-wife and three children were leave behind APS1m out of the few assets her husband left in the UK.

For Janna the component that really enrages her, though, is the legal fees. It was an endless fighting to get any justice, she says, with hearings galore and shadowy attempts to sell their family home from under her feet which she believes should never have been allowed to get off the ground. Her husband once told her that Britain was a good place for rich humen. That, she concluded, was true. If I had a good lawyer, this case should have taken a few months, and no problems. But in three months the lawyers fees were APS4 5,000, which I couldnt pay, and they had done nothing but send letters. I went to the Citizens Advice Bureau and they put me in touch with a different lawyer, who was a lot cheaper. But it was the same tale: pay money, paid for. No action. Hundreds of letters were sent between my lawyers and his. Altogether my legal fees were APS9 0,000. It shouldnt have been like that.

Search for justice: Janna Kremen photographed in London in October 2015. Photograph: Amelia Troubridge for the Observer

Charming, intelligent and sparky, but no longer extremely rich, the final girls to join us, Caroline Hopkins and Vivien Hobbs, know a thing or two about legal fees. These lawyers are get huge amounts of cash from these fighting couples, tells Caroline, 63, sitting down on a bench outside the saloon. Of course it is worse if one half is very wealthy and has loads of fund behind them to carry on oppose, which is what my husband was like. How much did you spend on lawyers? I dislike the idea of that going in[ to the article] but it was over APS3 00,000.

Caroline had claimed in tribunal that she was bullied into signing a post-nuptial agreement as her marriage to William Hopkins started to crumble. He is one of the richest men in Somerset and worth an estimated APS3 8m. She adds that she found Hopkinss lawyer, Fiona Shackleton( who was famously soaked by a water-jug-wielding Heather Mills at the High Court at the end of her divorce battle with Sir Paul McCartney ), to be an intimidating presence in the background to her decisions at the time.

The court heard that Hopkins had confessed to bullying behaviour in letters, but concluded that Caroline had not been operating under any undue influence, duress or improper pressure when she entered into the post-nuptial settlement. She was left with one home in Wincanton, Somerset, worth APS5 30,000, and a APS2 50,000 bungalow which she has had to remortgage to pay the legal fees. The post-nuptial agreement also gave her a lump sum of APS2 00,000, and she will get 50% of her husbands pension. Shes adamant that it wasnt enough and that the judge was mistaken, and she is taking legal action against one of her solicitors.

And then there is Vivien campaign manager of the Michelle Young Foundation. The entangled complexities of the relationship between these parties and their litigation could be the subject matter of a volume, Justice Holman said at the latest hearing considering Viviens divorce( her second) to naval architect Dennis Welch, 66, who lives in Singapore.

After the divide: Vivien Hobbs. Photo: Amelia Troubridge for the Observer

Viviens first divorce left her saddled with a debt of APS4 14,000 to her solicitors due to legal wranglings over the settlement. Her second has find her rack up around APS7 0,000 in legal bills in so far, with Vivien insisting her husband has not been frank about his wealth and enjoys a champagne lifestyle. He denies it. The tribunal agrees with him. Vivien, 58, has a court of appeal hearing coming up. The commonality of most people who come through the Michelle Young Foundation website is that “they il be” hollering injustice, she tells. I was a sceptic at first. I rationalised it as individual failings, but the numbers have built and there is a growing feeling that it is a problem with the family courts they are dysfunctional.

It isnt, however, an debate with which Viviens former husband, who successfully applied for a two-year civil restraint order on her in July avoiding her from attaining farther applications in the court against him, has much sympathy. Asked to respond to Viviens objections, Welch emailed: Ive no wish to comment on the so-called First Wives Club other than my ex-wife is described on the Foundation website as co-campaigner/ campaign director a tireless campaigner of civil liberties. It should be added whilst also receiving country benefits as being allegedly unfit for run. The facts of my divorce decisions are now thankfully the subject of public knowledge in which she is described as vengeful, obsessive, irrational and unjustified. She applied all of these characteristics as a serial litigator who has wasted large sums of fund and court time in denying facts and reality and causing unbelievable stress and ache in her relentless assaults on me, her first spouse and our families.

Vivien tells she is no longer on benefits.

It might be seducing then to dismiss this campaign as something of a concerted, and perhaps even at times irrational, moan. Back at the Constitution, Michelle and Vivien( who have claimed to the police that their telephones are being tapped) talk ominously about members of the judiciary being on the take and misogynistic magistrates helping out their golfing friends when they come up in tribunal. A fifth member of the group, who turns up at the pub but doesnt want to be named, been shown that an elderly gentleman sitting on a stool by the bar is listening in on their dialogues, presumably to report back to some mysterious master. Michelle doesnt dissuaded her. We are dealing with a very sensitive subject, arent we? she says. Offshore accounts; a judiciary that makes a lot of money out of it not working. We are touching on things that have never been touched on before. And it has to be addressed.

But cut through all the exaggeration, and there is something here. These females have been through hell. Each of them loved their husbands and were left devastated by the collapse of their relationships. Children were sometimes involved. Their own lives were thrown up in the air and they have, in quite significant respects, been let down by their lawyers or the organizations of the system. And the courts can be horribly brutal. Caroline, who is clearly a nervous interviewee, tells she is not the same girl today having lived through her ordeal.

There may not be a conspiracy against these women and others, but ask lawyers who are coming to the end of their careers and feel free to be frank, and the Family Courts do appear to resemble one hell of a cock-up.

Caroline Hopkins: It is worse if one half is wealthy and has loads of fund behind them to carry on fighting, which is what my husband was like. Photograph: Amelia Troubridge for the Observer

Pam Collis, a family law attorney for 30 years, and an expert in big money claims, insists that however the system must be drawn up, there will always be devious people who get away with hiding their wealth. A good lawyer, she adds, knows when to cut and run and not eat too heavily into their clients cash. There are certain humen you cannot catch out. I had one disastrous occurrence with a dame living in Surrey, in a whopping great house, married to a human who had pots of fund, but there was almost nothing I could do for her. The money had disappeared. The house was in an offshore company. It was awful. It is possible to get away with it if that is your ambition.

I had another case where I got the attorney on the other side to come round to my office. The spouses solicitor told: Listen, my client is Russian. You are never going to discover what he has got.

I said: I know, but this cant is correct to say. And he said: But, Pam, what are you going to do? My client and I had foreseen this, so we just did the best bargain we could. There was no point in running up expenses. I could have gone and gone, but my client would have ended up with nothing.

But as pragmatic as Collis says lawyers need to be, the courts arent holding the rich to account, she admits. It isnt misogyny to blamed, though, she insists. Its a matter of the law. The powers are there to incarcerate people who refuse to disclose, but they are not always exercised in the way they should be, in my opinion. The Human Rights Act has changed things dramatically.

Happier days: Caroline with William Hopkins, one of the richest men in Somerset.

In the old days I issued summonses left, right and centre. And it was effective. You cant do it under the Human Rights Act because you cant deprive person of their liberty without being able to prove that youve given them every opportunity to comply, and if they can show that they couldnt comply for some reason, you dont get your order. So the courts have gone a little bit soft on this.

But Colliss biggest beef is the issue that impacts on everyone , not only the rich, and that is that legal expenses at Family Courts have spun out of control. All too often, she adds, lawyers in this field are simply not good enough. Im coming to the end of my career, I can say this: the whole way the system is run is inefficient and it affects people more at the bottom end of the heap. The rich can pay.

If three attorneys are put on a lawsuit rather than one, which is typically what happens, it is bad news for the standing of family statute generally and for people who dont have lots of fund. There has not been enough thought about shaking the system up big time. I mean, household lawyers should understand a situate of accounts, but there are many who dont. It is appalling. There has been example after case where the assets are APS2m and the legal costs are APS2m. That is completely mad.

Leaving the Constitution pub, Michelle thanks me for my day. I think you get it, she adds. Perhaps.

The Michelle Young Foundation has set up a petition demanding reform( it has 366 signatories ). It is arguable whether Michelle and co are the right people to be waging this fight. But as their former husbands know, they are highly unlikely to be dissuaded.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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