High Court judge invokes King Lear to bemused divorcing couple

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By Judge John Hack on

When you just want to see the back of the person causing you a world of marital grief for goodness knows how long, along comes a clever-clogs on the bench spouting some early 17th-century iambic pentameter


Recently a US judge inserted a cartoon in a written judgment — and now on this side of the Atlantic a leading family court judge has raised the literary stakes by invoking a spot of Shakespeare.

It should potentially come as no surprise that the idiosyncratic Mr Justice Mostyn — or Sir Nick to his mates — has publicly reached for that great tragedy, King Lear, in a hearing at the end of last month that has just come to light.

For Mostyn (pictured below) is no stranger to publicity. Before becoming a full-time family judge in 2010, he was one of the biggest hitting divorce silks bestriding the family law courts.


He acted for Karen Parlour 10 years ago when she bagged more than £4 million from former Arsenal FC midfielder Ray as well as a healthy chunk of the Romford Pele’s future earnings.

Sir Nicholas was also on the winning side when acting for ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney in his 2008 court split with Heather Mills. The model had wanted £125 million from the “Yesterday” crooner, but in the end she walked away with a paltry £16.5 million.

Mostyn also has a colourful background. He’s a devout Catholic who had no difficulty earning more than £500 an hour acting for those getting divorced. On taking a full-time High Court role, he told Lynn Barber in an Observer newspaper interview that he grew up in Nigeria, Venezuela and El Salvador, owing to the peripatetic work life of his father, who was an executive with global fag merchants British American Tobacco.

When at Ampleforth College in Yorkshire, Mostyn won the Observer Mace debating prize with Edward Stourton, who went on to become a leading BBC journalist. The barrister told Barber he and Stourton agreed “we were going to make our livings from talking”.

And clearly Mostyn can’t resist rabbiting on, even from the bench.

In SS v NS at the end of November, Mostyn told the parties:

“I would suggest that these swirling considerations cannot be pressed into a formula which provides an answer, and it is right that that should be so, for the assessment of need is elastic, fact-specific and highly discretionary. For as King Lear pointed out, needs are exceedingly hard to reason; even the poor have things superfluous to their basic needs; and most luxuries are strictly unnecessary.”

In his written ruling, the judge helpfully cites act 2, scene 4 of King Lear. For those without instant recall of the Bard’s work, the full quote is:

“O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous. Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady. If only to go warm were gorgeous, Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st, Which scarcely keeps thee warm.”

All of which must have been extremely enlightening to the poor blighters before the bench, who were simply trying to see the back of each other.

It might have been helpful if Mostyn had handed round the modern version produced by the “No Fear Shakespeare” section of website SparkNotes, which runs like this:

“Oh, don’t ask me why I ‘need’ them! Even the poorest beggars have some meager possessions they don’t really ‘need’. If you allow people no more than what they absolutely need to survive, then a human life is no better than an animal’s. You’re a well-dressed lady. If you dressed only to stay warm, you wouldn’t need these gorgeous clothes you’re wearing—which don’t keep you warm at all.”

Just how much Lear’s words influenced Mostyn is unknown, but in the end he decided that the wife in the case should be awarded £1.2 million.


Between SS and NS