Catherine Zeta-Jones signed one, Heather McCartney offered to. Now UK lawyers plan to make them legally binding for everyone.

Do you, the party of the first part, take this, the party of the second part, for your lawful wedded spouse?” The age of the bride and groom appearing at the altar armed with a contract could soon be upon us.

So great is the demand for them by couples, and so prevalent is divorce in Britain, that the pressure for legally binding pre-nuptial agreements could be irresistible.

Next month, the country’s leading organisation for divorce lawyers will tell ministers that the number of British couples seeking a formal contract before they tie the knot is growing so fast that a change in the law is now required.

Famously associated with the likes of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, pre-nuptial agreements set out how a couple’s assets are to be divided in the event of marital breakdown. US Presidential candidate John Kerry and his wife Teresa, heir to the Heinz fortune, have signed one. Even the Crown Prince of Denmark and his bride had one, after lawyers discovered that, under Danish law, a divorce could mean the Princess would have a claim on half the kingdom.

“Pre-nups” have not been popular in Britain because for years judges here refused to recognise them, but that now seems set to change. Louisa Cross, a spokeswoman for the SFLA, which represents 5,000 family lawyers, said the influence of such agreements is already growing in the courts, despite their uncertain legal status. “Many family lawyers believe pre-nuptial agreements – with suitable safeguards – should be legally binding, to give people a sense of certainty when they enter marriage,” she said.

The SFLA are not the only ones to discover demand for pre-nups. Last month, family law website Divorce-online reported sales of its online pre-marital contracts had risen by 177 per cent in the first nine months of 2003. A survey by online bank Smile found that nearly half of all marrying couples wanted them. And many felt they should not be restricted to financial assets. Clauses covering staying faithful, sharing housework, limiting a partner’s shopping sprees and “not letting appearances go” were also cited.

The SFLA report, which took 12 months to compile, comes in response to a rising divorce rate. There were more than 153,000 divorces in England and Wales in 2003, the third successive annual increase. One-10th were between couples who had each been divorced previously, double the proportion in 1981.

The report also hopes to clear up the uncertainty over maintenance awards thrown up by a number of high-profile legal cases, including that of the footballer Ray Parlour. Earlier this year, the courts ruled that his ex-wife Karen is entitled to one-third of his future earnings to acknowledge the role she played in his success so far. The case was unusual, but provoked a mini-boom in demand for pre-nuptial agreements among sportsmen and celebrities.

Many believe that the British pre-nup would deal another, possibly fatal, blow to the old-fashioned ideal of marriage as a life-long romance. “I can’t see the point in getting married if you’re going to sign one. But I’m slightly old-fashioned,” said the Independent writer and agony aunt Virginia Ironside. “The idea that if you get married you have to abide by a certain set of rules is mostly gone.” Paul McCartney would agree. His wife, Heather, offered to sign one, but he thought it unnecessary.

Claire Rayner, the writer and broadcaster, does believe couples should prepare for the worst. “The idea that people can only get married when they’re drowned in love and emotion is a modern one. In the old days, people knew marriage was a contract.”

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