Britain's Divorce Craze: Hire a Detective

Pete Holman is a private investigator from the north of England with an accent to match. The 33-year-old is an ex-commando from the Royal Marines. He is short and stocky, and his arms are covered in blue-ink tattoos.

It was approaching 1 p.m. when Holman and I got into his black BMW SUV. With minimum use of the brake, Holman drove to a middle class neighborhood near Gatwick Airport, on the outskirts of London. There was a stakeout to be done.

This was a new case for Holman. The man who'd hired him was convinced that his wife was carrying on an affair during her lunch hour.

It costs about $90 for an hour of Holman's services, cheap by U.K. standards, where a rate of $400 an hour is not uncommon. Demand for private eyes is going up, Holman said, especially in divorce cases.

Back on the job, Holman pulled into a parking lot across the street from his client's home. We had a direct view of the front door. Holman took out a digital camera with a long lens and placed it on his dashboard.

I asked Holman what his instinct was about the case and the husband's suspicions about his wife. "She's been naughty," he said, without pausing to think.

Holman and his partner, Damien Ozenbrook, opened up Scarab Security Management in January. Previously, Holman had worked as a body guard and in surveillance. Since he started his company, he's had 25 cases. Ninety-five percent of them have been matrimonial issues, a booming business in Britain, he said.

Holman is not the only private investigator reaping the benefits of the spousal suspicion boom, although not all PI's play strictly by the rules. Recently, the divorce proceedings of Tamara Mellon, the founder and CEO of the British handbag company Jimmy Choo, and her husband, American Matthew Mellon II, the banking heir, took a nasty turn. Tamara Mellon charged her husband hired a private investigator to hack into her computer and otherwise violate her privacy, as well as the law. Matthew Mellon is now facing a criminal investigation to go along with his divorce.

And last year, Anthony Pellicano, a private investigator in Los Angeles, was indicted on charges of wiretapping and conspiracy. Pellicano's client list is full of Hollywood heavyweights, from Kirk Kerkorian, former owner of MGM, to film producer Steven Bing, who allegedly used Pellicano in an attempt to dig up dirt on Elizabeth Hurley after she claimed Bing was the father of her child. Pellicano remains in jail awaiting trial.

When there's a lot of it, money is often the primary reason to bring in a private investigator. As the London divorce attorney Vanessa Lloyd Platt put it, "If the wife knows that she'll get 50 percent of everything, she'll want to know: What is everything?" Platt estimates that private investigators are used in 10 percent of British divorce cases where the fight is a financial one. In the United States, the numbers are similar, experts say.

Though valuable in some cases, there is a limit to how useful a private investigator's findings can be.

In the 1970s, American marriage laws changed. In most states, "no fault" divorce laws replaced more demanding legal requirements. No longer was it necessary to prove adultery or cruelty. Now, all that was needed was the surgical diagnosis that the relationship was "irreparably ruptured beyond repair." Sure enough, 30 years later, adultery is rarely a factor in the division of assets, or even the issue of child custody.

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