A decade after ‘making the leap’ to set up her own family practice, Ayesha Vardag had what she said was her busiest August ever last summer.
‘We’re sure the increase is to do with [the Ashley Madison adultery website hacking revelations] but can’t tell to what extent,’ she says. The revelations, she predicts, are a ‘one-day event that will have repercussions for families for years to come’.
Vardag believes the shockwaves will keep rolling in as couples try, but fail, to get past finding out their partners were on the site.
‘If the user figures were true, we’d be talking about 10% of all English marriages being affected. Even taking that with a giant pinch of salt, we’re looking at a big-impact phenomenon.’
Nicknamed the ‘diva of divorce’ by the media after acting in several high-profile cases, her profile is intimidating. In person she is quite the opposite.
Describing family law as a ‘very closed world, a very bitchy world’, Vardag set up her firm from her north London townhouse with some apprehension.
‘There was a song by Gwen Stefani out at that point that was all about procrastination, not facing challenges, called ‘What You Waiting For?’. And it kept playing on the radio and it felt like a sign that I should just bite the bullet and get on with it.
‘So I did. I sat down, wrote a business plan, [filled out] my applications for insurance, wrote my website – much of which we still use.’
One of Vardag’s early clients, she recalls, came as a result of trying to phone a repair man, dialling the wrong number and speaking to a man she once had lunch with as a favour to a friend to talk about his divorce.
‘I told him I was setting up my own firm. He referred me a friend of his who he said would benefit from my assistance.’ That case ended up in the High Court.
As word of mouth spread, Vardag’s client base grew. But it was one case in particular that put her in a different league of family lawyers: Radmacher v Granatino, the landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that judges could take pre-nuptial agreements into account providing certain conditions were met.
The extent of Vardag’s success is reflected in her office space – from her north London townhouse, to a boutique-style office adjacent to the Royal Courts of Justice and a second office in Winchester, to a much bigger space seconds away from the Old Bailey.
Expansion was very much a central theme for Vardag in 2015. Last year she announced the firm had entered into a ‘joint collaboration’ with Dubai-based Trench & Associates. Last August she signed a lease for a third office, in Manchester.
As for how family law will develop, the big shift, she says, will be getting big-money financial cases into arbitration.
Vardag says she acted in the first ever concluded family law arbitration case, which involved a member of a foreign royal family. The case remained entirely confidential, which she says is a great merit of arbitration, along with sped, cost-effectiveness and conducting the case in a more civilised environment.
Her firm routinely proposes arbitration for cases, but Vardag says solicitors are ‘dragging their heels, in some cases because they don’t understand or aren’t familiar with it and, I fear, in some cases because a speedy decision by an expert judge in the private sector courts, without months or years of delay, turns off the taps on their fees’.
And what does she make of the government’s announcement that it is increasing the court fee for divorce proceedings, from £410 to £550? (The Ministry of Justice says fee remissions will be available for cases such as those involving women in low-wage household.)
‘We need to finance the courts to give proper access to justice,’ she says. ‘The higher fees for proceedings are a drop in the ocean on big cases and help pay for the smaller ones.’
Vardag is a fascinating lawyer for the national media, as seen last year when she hit the headlines ahead of her lavish wedding to Vardags’ director of strategy Stephen Bence (Vardag was pictured proudly holding her pre-nuptial agreement in one national newspaper interview). She also made a memorable appearance with her husband on Channel 4’s Couples Come Dine With Me.
Her professional expertise of high-net-worth divorce cases means she is also often asked to speak on cases making the headlines.
As Vardag forges ahead with her expansion plans too, it’s safe to say there are no signs of her high-profile status tailing off anytime soon.