Glamorous, rich and very well-connected, Tamara Mellon was the perfect embodiment of everything which her exclusive Jimmy Choo brand promised. With a head for business and the legs for stilettoes, she transformed herself from hard-partying IT girl in the 1980s, via the ubiquitous spell in rehab, into a formidable businesswoman with an estimated £90m share in her shoe empire.

Matthew Taylor Mellon was the handsome and suave socialite heir to a £6.6bn American banking fortune. When they married in May 2000, the wedding took place at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire with 50 doves and a huge cake. The bride was dressed in Valentino couture and diamonds, and the photographs were spread across eight pages of American Vogue magazine.

In 2005, the fairy tale ended in acrimonious divorce and this week Matthew Mellon, 43, has been in court denying charges of conspiring to cause unauthorised modification of computer material. He had allegedly employed a private detective agency, London-based Active Investigation Services (AIS), to "snoop" on his wife. In the midst of divorce proceedings, it is alleged that Mrs Mellon, 37, received an e-mail, the subject line of which suggested it contained information about her husband's activities. When she opened it, a Trojan device allegedly allowed spyware to infiltrate her computer. This is said to have allowed a third party, based in the US, to gain access to her confidential files and observe every keystroke she made. Mellon's co-accused, of AIS, variously deny 15 counts of conspiracy alleging fraud, the unauthorised modification and interception of computer material and criminal damage. The case continues.

As with so many of society's less gracious trends, where celebrities lead, mere mortals follow. John Fotheringham, a child and family law specialist at Fyfe Ireland solicitors in Edinburgh and Glasgow, says that private investigators are increasingly being employed to gather information about a spouse's wealth: "Investigative reports are becoming much more common in relation to economics. We are finding, much more commonly, reports from forensic accountants to find out the nature of the true value of a spouse's assets. What people are arguing about very often is the money and the division of all the assets and what they amount to, and so you will find a very sharp decline in the use of investigators in relation to adultery and an increasing use of forensic accountants to establish the value of assets."

According to a survey of 100 matrimonial lawyers in the UK published this week, 49% of divorce cases involved a private investigator last year, compared with 18% in the previous 12 months. The poll, conducted by business advisers Grant Thornton, stated that adultery was the main reason cited for marriage breakdowns: it was named in 32% of cases as grounds for divorce, up from 29% in 2005. Husbands were cited as adulterers in 69% of cases.

Private investigator George Morris leads a team of five at Jack Clark Investigations in Glasgow, which was established in 1984. Morris had previously worked as a pre-cognition agent taking statements for lawyers in court cases before moving into private investigation. "The freedom of the job appealed to me, plus the fact I'm nosy. You've got to have a very good base of curiosity." He deals with a variety of enquiries, but admits that women make up the majority of his clients and suspected infidelity is top of the list.

"By the time they come to me, some of them have already done some investigating, but they want the knowledge so that they can either confront or take some action."

However, the explanations for odd behaviour can be more prosaic than passionate. "I had a lady who wanted to know where her husband was going between 10am and 4pm. She was convinced he was having an affair but it turned out he was going to the casino. We also had occasions where guys have actually been made redundant and the wives are wondering where all the money has gone, whether it has been spent on someone else. These guys didn't want to admit to being without a job and were hopeful that they would get work quickly. The fact that they weren't able to open up is sad."

While Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade character conjures up a rather romantic image of the private eye, Morris admits that much of his job involves sitting around waiting for something to happen. "You've got to have the patience of Job. I don't really have to use a disguise, I'm not someone who stands out in the crowd. It's amazing how many people will pass you in the street and not even notice that you are there."

Unlike more unscrupulous operators, Morris says he is acutely aware of having to operate within the limits of the Data Protection Act. "Even if you were to take photographs of someone in the street and there was someone in the background who took objection to that, then you could get done. We're often asked to do things we can't. For example, we can't record telephone conversations unless you actually tell the person that it is being recorded."

However, many Scots still seem reluctant to go down this route. Clair McLachlan of Russells Gibson and McCaffrey law firm in Glasgow has dealt with three cases in the last two years which involved the use of a private investigator. "I am surprised by the statistic which says that 49% of people who approach lawyers consult a private investigator. Before the law in Scotland changed in May last year, you had to wait five years if you couldn't get the consent of your spouse to divorce. In those circumstances, if financial negotiations had broken down, the only way you could force a financial settlement is divorce. Since May of last year, this has been reduced from five years to two years, which really isn't that long once the parties have contacted their lawyers." She adds: "Conduct has no relevance to financial division."

Fellow family law specialist John Fotheringham agrees that infidelity will be less and less likely to be a reason for surveillance. "It used to be, a generation or two ago, that there was a serious social stigma attached to adultery and people didn't want to admit it; now that stigma has largely vanished and people are willing to admit adultery, and an investigator is not required."

A Scots sleuth
Scot Allan Pinkerton, born in 1819 in Glasgow, founded the world- famous Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago after emigrating to the US in 1842. Specialising in capturing train robbers and counterfeiters, the agency had the world's largest collection of mugshots by the 1870s and inspired the formation of the FBI. Pinkerton famously foiled a plot to kill President Lincoln and tracked down Butch Cassidy. The agency's motto was "we never sleep" and its unblinking eye logo inspired the term "private eye".