The most feared divorce lawyer in Britain

Edwin Smith
June 8, 2020, Spear’s Magazine

Fiona Shackleton left Exeter University with a third-class degree, then began working as a cook. How did she become the most feared divorce lawyer in Britain?

On 17 March 2008, in London’s High Court, Heather Mills poured a jug of water over Fiona Shackleton’s head, transforming her trademark feathered Farah Fawcett hairdo into a slicked-back look more redolent of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.

Perhaps the incident, which, along with the details of Mills’ divorce from Sir Paul McCartney, was splashed across newspapers the next day, was the pivotal moment in Shackleton’s career. Or maybe that came in 1996, when she represented Prince Charles in his divorce from Diana. It may even have been earlier this year, when Shackleton’s client Princess Haya bint Hussein of Jordan won a stunning preliminary judgment at the High Court in a battle with her estranged husband, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai known as ‘MBR’.

What is beyond reasonable doubt is that the 63-year-old Fiona Shackleton – Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia, Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order, to give her full title – has a bigger reputation than any other divorce lawyer in the land. ‘We don’t venerate lawyers in this country like they do in the US,’ says Matthew Rhodes, a lawyer and founder of the legal industry website RollOnFriday. ‘I think Fiona is the only celebrity lawyer we have.’ She’s also one of few with a plausible nickname, ‘the Steel Magnolia’, which sums up a winning combination of inner grit and exterior polish.

Other high-profile clients have included Prince Andrew, Liam Gallagher, the Aga Khan, Stephen Hawking, Norman Foster, German socialite Maya Flick, as well as the former wives of footballer Thierry Henry and advertising magnate Martin Sorrell. Her wardrobe of structured power-suits, brightly coloured dresses and designer accessories has attracted the attention of Vogue and the Daily Mail, which once ran an article about her ‘killer outfits’ headlined ‘Dressed to kill’.

Shackleton’s dousing at the hands of Heather Mills came after Mills was awarded just £24 million of former Beatle McCartney’s £400 million fortune. Although this amounted to £700 for every hour Mills was married to McCartney, the sum was £100 million less than she had claimed and around £3 million less than the value of the settlement offered by Shackleton and McCartney at the outset. The 1996 divorce of Prince Charles and Diana has been described as ‘a creditable draw’ between Shackleton’s team and lawyers at Mishcon de Reya, but it was notable for the fact that Diana was obliged to give up her royal title. Shackleton had secured the same concession from Sarah Ferguson in her divorce from the Duke of York earlier that year.

Notwithstanding criticism arising from the Paul Burrell affair, Shackleton has retained the trust of the Royal Family for a generation and remains private solicitor to Princes William and Harry. But her career trajectory has not been what you might expect.

She is the daughter of Jonathan Charkham, a sheriff of the City of London and adviser to the Bank of England, and Moira, of the Salmon family which co-owned J Lyons & Son, the food manufacturing and corner house company. Through the Salmon family she is the cousin of Nigella and Dominic Lawson as well as the Guardian environmental columnist George Monbiot (although Monbiot tells Spear’s they have never actually met).

She was born in London and attended Benenden School – the alma mater of Princess Anne, which today charges pupils £39,000 per year. Shackleton was told that she wasn’t clever enough to become a doctor and instead headed off to Exeter to study law. University contemporaries have described a girl with an ‘incredibly upper-class accent and raucous voice’. The law department at Exeter – then known for its focus on the nitty-gritty of ‘black letter law’, according to Michael Frendo, who studied there around the same time – doesn’t seem to have suited her. She scraped through with a third-class degree. ‘I got most of the wildness out of my hair before I left,’ she has said. Today, she doesn’t drink.

‘None of us dreamed she’d make such a mark,’ said one contemporary who became a solicitor. ‘We predicted she would marry well and become a society hostess.’ For a short time, that seemed a likely outcome. After graduation, Shackleton returned to the family home in Kensington and began catering for boardroom lunches and livery companies. In 1980, however, she returned to law and in 1984 landed a job at Farrer & Co – solicitors to the Queen.

Baroness Shackleton represented Prince Charles in his 1996 divorce from Diana

She was ‘very, very cool’, a former colleague at Farrer’s tells Spear’s. ‘She used to leave the door open in her office and have her phone on speaker, to quite important people. She would sit there with a large pair of scissors, snipping the split ends of her hair at her desk while she was on the phone.

‘I walked past one day when she was looking a bit bored, snipping her hair, and there was a distraught woman on the phone who said, “And their friend has just told us he’s gay and my husband’s just gone out and shot the dog!” Fiona replied, “Yes, that’s terrible, terrible.” She was just cool.’

Two years after joining Farrer’s, Shackleton was made partner, but in 2001, five years after doing two royal divorces in one summer, she left for Payne Hicks Beach. ‘In my view, Farrer’s was not a very good firm,’ says the former colleague. ‘Certainly at the time that she left, they were not top-flight, and I think she probably found that quite frustrating. She was, by a country mile, the most important person there, the most famous person there. It was also a very old-fashioned firm and, actually, I don’t think Fiona is old-fashioned at all. You might think she is, being “Lady Shackleton of Belgravia, LVO” and all the rest of it, acting for the Royal Family. But she’s very modern.’

One of family law’s peculiarities is the phenomenon of the ‘Queen Bees’ – a cadre of top female lawyers who rose to the top of the profession in the Eighties and Nineties and have stayed there. Shackleton shares the designation of ‘Queen Bee’ with Lady Helen Ward of Stewarts, Frances Hughes of Hughes Fowler Carruthers, Diana Parker of Withers and Sandra Davis of Mishcon de Reya. Remaining at the top of any profession for an extended period is an impressive feat, but it may be even more significant in a field that is subject to complicated internecine rivalries, alliances and tensions. As a colleague of one Queen Bee puts it to Spear’s, ‘Family law is very catty.’

Some lawyers Spear’s spoke to suggested the time might soon come for some of the industry’s senior figures to stand aside in order to make room for fresh talent. One noted that ‘succession planning’ is already under way at Payne Hicks Beach, which has bolstered and restructured its family division. Another put it particularly bluntly: ‘They should have dropped off the end of their perch. They’re blocking the way for the younger generation to come through.’

But Diana Parker, a Queen Bee herself, is not so sure. ‘Certain people [in the slightly younger generation of family lawyers] are definitely stars. Equally, you know, Helen is a star, Fiona’s a star and Frances is a star. These people have star quality still; it’s not that they’re just sort of being helped on to their Zimmer frames.’

Baroness Shackleton was made a life peer in 2010

Indeed, one current colleague describes Shackleton as ‘a powerhouse’ and remembers her passing on orders regarding her recent case with Princess Haya even as she was in hospital undergoing treatment on an arm injury: ‘She was literally issuing instructions to people while she was being wheeled in to have a general anaesthetic.’

A senior industry figure describes Shackleton as a ‘Marmite character’, and the less positive assessments of her often concern a perceived showiness. ‘You can’t get much more ostentatious than Fiona,’ says another. Perhaps, though, this reflects a certain amount of envy at her ability to use what she wears to conjure up media attention when it serves her clients’ interests.

She seldom talks to the media (and, via her firm, turned down a request to speak to Spear’s for this article). But during the first week of the custody hearing between Princess Haya and MBR, which the sheikh failed to attend, Shackleton made time to don a sequinned gold dress and pose for press photographers at the launch of a film about the life of Ralph Lauren. Her style statement – and the case – was duly reported in the Daily Mail the next day.

‘That’s just managing the media, you know,’ says David Haigh, a lawyer who met with Shackleton’s team through his work on a campaign to ‘free’ Sheikha Latifa, one of MBRs daughters with another of his wives. ‘She’s smart. She knows the Daily Mail and the Sun readers are not interested in the boring legal stuff, but they are interested in what a Jordanian princess and the lawyer who divorced Prince Charles are wearing. She understands that puts pressure on [MBR]. We know the only things he cares about are horses and reputation, so if you can damage either of those, it pressurises him.’

Shackleton and her husband Ian, a descendant of the explorer Ernest Shackleton, have two daughters – Cordelia and Lydia – who, according to a friend, are always on the phone to their mother. When they were growing up, Shackleton is said to have left the office at 5:30pm every day to tend to parenting duties, although she did occasionally bring work home with her. A friend told the Times that Lydia once picked up the phone to a man claiming to be Prince Charles and said, ‘Oh, pull the other one,’ and hung up. It turned out to be the future king, ‘who thought the whole thing was very amusing and called back’. ‘Kindness’ is one of the words most often used to describe Shackleton, who is known for baking brownies for clients and colleagues. ‘She love-bombs’ her clients, says one barrister. ‘She’s very kind,’ notes another. ‘Whether it’s Prince William or a clerk, she could talk to anyone. Whether it’s genuine or not, it’s a great act to pull off.’

Princess Haya bint Hussein of Jordan, who Shackleton represented earlier this year against her estranged husband, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum

Ben Parry-Smith is now a partner at Payne Hicks Beach, but he remembers being ‘a little terrified of her’ when Shackleton would go ‘sweeping past’ the broom cupboard sized office he occupied as a newly qualified lawyer. ‘She’s just incredibly kind to everyone,’ says Parry-Smith, who has been described as Shackleton’s protégé. ‘When my wife [an NHS doctor] has been struggling with being knackered from doing long shifts, Fiona would send her a box of brownies or sticky toffee pudding.’

It is not all sweetness and light, however. One of the barristers Spear’s speaks to observes that Shackleton can be ‘furious’ when she ends up on the losing side of a case. ‘It’s quite entertaining when she loses actually, because she almost doesn’t know what’s gone wrong. You know: “Well, how could that possibly have happened?!”’

‘But,’ the same barrister adds, ‘she’s a very slick and smooth operator and she does very, very well for her clients. And they do like her when she goes the extra mile.’

‘I like sticking up for people, making sure they’re not taken advantage of,’ Shackleton once said. ‘It helps to have a rod of steel in your back and lots of charm.’ And, according to David Haigh, she has both. Haigh, a human rights lawyer, was jailed without charge in Dubai in 2014 and says he was beaten and raped during his 22 months behind bars. Now he campaigns against human-rights abuses and is a key figure in the Free Latifa campaign which collaborated with Shackleton’s team as they gathered information to support Princess Haya in her legal battle with MBR.

Last year MBR, 70, applied to the English High Court for the return of two of his children with Princess Haya, 45, after she brought them with her to London to stay in her family’s £85 million Kensington home. At the time Spear’s went to press, the final judgment in the case had been delayed, but a preliminary judgment has been viewed as a significant victory for Haya and Shackleton’s team, who are seeking to protect one of the children from a forced marriage.

The judge ruled MBR acted in a manner that ‘has been aimed at intimidating and frightening the mother, and that he has encouraged others to do so on his behalf’. The court heard how a gun had twice been placed on Haya’s pillow and a helicopter landed outside her house in Dubai and she was threatened with being taken to a notorious prison.

‘It’s very difficult to find a law firm that will go against Dubai or the UAE, particularly the ruler, because they’ve got their fingers in so many pies,’ says Haigh. ‘The majority of decent law firms have either got offices there or want offices there, or have clients there, so they will say no. They don’t want to rock the boat. The fact that her firm did that against the ruler – that’s made her persona non grata in that country for ever. So it’s a very brave thing to do.’

If Shackleton also represents Haya in her divorce from MBR, which some observers expect to follow the custody battle, the sheikh will surely be left without any doubt. She might bake and have a penchant for designer dresses and handbags but, where and when it counts, the Steel Magnolia is no shrinking violet.