I don’t often write about ancillary relief cases, but this one
JE (Husband) v ZK (wife) 2015
threw up an issue that we all trot out to witnesses on a daily basis and when I asked on Twitter about six months ago where you can find that actual rule written down, nobody was entirely sure.
When a witness is part way through their evidence, and the case comes to a break (either at the end of the day, or lunch), the witness is generally warned by the Judge “You should not discuss the case with any one, and you are still under Oath”
The still under Oath part must be right, since when the witness resumes, they do not have to take the Oath again. Therefore, during that break in the evidence, the witness is still bound to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – technically, if the witness goes for a haircut and the hairdresser does that thing with a mirror where they show you the back of your own head, rather than the stock response of :- nod “mmm, that’s great thanks” the witness ought to answer “I have no idea why you show me that, what is the point? Whatever you’ve done, it is too late to fix, and I don’t care what the back of my head looks like”
[Even worse, if you are still under Oath, and your new partner asks you “does my bum look big in this?”, you could be in for a world of trouble. Best to not talk to anyone at all]
The not discussing the case with anyone makes perfect common sense (which is unusual in law). If you could talk about your evidence with someone whilst you were in the middle of giving it, they could be influencing what you say, or giving you tips as to how to do it better. And if someone else in the case saw the witness talking to their lawyer or another party, they might well SUSPECT that this is what was happening, even if it wasn’t. So best not to do it.
The hard bit is finding where that rule is actually written down, and what the Judge is supposed to do about it.
Here, what happened was that the original Judge heard evidence that the husband, having given part of his evidence and then needing to come back over lunch, had been seen in the Court waiting room talking to his colleague NC (his colleague was also someone whom the husband had been renting accommodation from AND someone who was said to owe the husband £15,000, so it COULD be said that the conversation might have a bearing on financial matters)
The husband’s evidence was that he had asked NC about “Ironman” competitions and personal trainers, and nobody disputed that.
The District Judge had found that the father was in contempt, and said in his judgment
‘Is it relevant? I can hear being said! Well, yes, for this is the same man who remortgaged 141 Kings Road after having said through his solicitors that there were no grounds for saying that he was going to. Like that, his behaviour at the lunchtime was unacceptable’.
Now, importantly, this was a hearing where a financial order was made, concluding the financial arrangements. The District Judge was now in a pickle, because whilst saying that it was ‘relevant’ it clearly wasn’t conduct that could legitimately be taken into account for the purposes of the Matrimonial Causes Act.
The District Judge then made a clarifying note
In his clarifying note at B26 the District Judge said that he did not take the husband’s conduct in speaking to NC into account in his conclusion and that he ‘would have thought that was clear. It just had to be mentioned, it as so blatant’.
Part of the husband’s appeal was that the judgment was thus blurred about whether or not this issue had weighed on the judicial determination of finances.
Dealing with the appeal, His Honour Judge Wildblood QC said this:-
- Quite plainly, that conversation between the husband and NC had absolutely nothing to do with the correct outcome of the financial remedy applications. It was a complete irrelevance, as far as the solution to the case was concerned. It certainly was not conduct that the court could possibly take into account when deciding upon the correct outcome. It had no relevance under any of the other factors under section 25 of The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and cannot be salvaged by reference to ‘all the circumstances of the case’ in s 25(1) of The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.
- I accept that the District Judge does not then tie in the finding that this issue was ‘relevant’ when later explaining his conclusions. At B15 he says that he is departing from quality bearing in mind the wife’s need for her to provide a home for the children. Further, at B6 he says: ‘there are two aspects of the husband’s affairs which I take into account within all the circumstances of the case and which make me satisfied that my decision is appropriate. First the dissipation of assets referred to in paragraph 4 above and, secondly, the opaque business relationship with Mr Clarke’. Although there are obvious difficulties with that past passage to which I must return, he does not say that the ‘contempt’ finding is relevant in that later passage.
- The difficulty is this. If a judge says that something is relevant in the sort of strong terms used by the District Judge he must mean what he says. A judgment has to be capable of being understood on its face and a party to the proceedings must be able to understand the methodology of the court. It seems highly likely that, at the time that he wrote the judgment, the District Judge did regard this issue as relevant to how the capital should be divided (because he said so himself at B15). I do not accept Ms Allen’s clever submission that he meant ‘Is it relevant for me to mention it?’ at B15; that interpretation does not fit in with the context of what he was saying. He associated it with the husband’s conduct in re-mortgaging the property at Kings Rd [B15] and, later took that remortgage into account at B16. The reality is that the District Judge was making findings of conduct and saying that he treated them as relevant. He was incorrect to do so and a clear statement in a judgment that something is treated as relevant cannot be cured by a clarifying note.
[This Judge was more sanguine about the incident itself than the DJ had been
iii) The finding of contempt was inappropriate and unnecessary to the exercise that the District Judge had to perform. The husband was wrong to speak to NC over lunch having been warned not to do so but the conduct complained of (speaking about personal trainers and an Ironman competition) had nothing whatsoever to do with the outcome of the case but was described by the District Judge as ‘relevant’ to it. I know the Gloucester waiting area well having appeared there as an advocate myself in my 27 years at the bar, and can well imagine what occurred (and what did occur happened in the full view of the lawyers and was not remotely surreptitious). ]
His Honour Judge Wildblood QC, with some reluctance, had to allow the appeal and discharge the financial order that had been made. I say with reluctance, because the Judge had earlier expressed substantial dismay that two people who had once been in love had spent a “Scandalous” amount of money in ligitation
- The District Judge said that the costs were scandalous. I agree. The total that has been spent in legal costs now is as follows:
|Wife’s costs before the District Judge
|Husband’s costs before the District Judge
|Husband’s appellate costs
|Wife’s appellate costs (at least)
- This is not a complex case. It involves a home, a working husband who is effectively a sole trader, a few modest assets, considerable liabilities, two children and a depressed wife. For money to have been wasted on such disproportionate costs is truly scandalous. Further, these parties have two children – what sort of example do they set their children when they spend so much of the money that should be directed to their children’s welfare on blinkered and self validating litigation?
- I am particularly critical of the level of this wife’s costs. They are double those of the husband and nothing that I have seen gets anywhere near justifying that. I have myself witnessed two wholly unnecessary applications being brought by the wife: a) for transcripts of all of the evidence before the District Judge to be ordered at the husband’s expense for the purposes of the appeal, an application which I did not allow and b) a full legal services application, when the correct application should have been for a partial release on a stay which, when I suggested it, was agreed on the evening before a hearing of the legal services application brought by the wife and only after considerable cost expenditure (W’s claimed costs £3875.70). Further, I consider that money has been wasted on obtaining expert evidence about the suggested value of the husband’s business when that capital value was abandoned (rightly) at trial and was never going to have the sort of relevance originally suggested. That expenditure on costs took place against the backcloth of strong complaint made by the husband before the District Judge about the wife’s costs expenditure (see A1 – no trial bundle, no open offer, no updating disclosure and a late production of her s 25 statement that had been prepared three months before the hearing started but was filed seven days before the hearing started).
- The above remarks must be before any judge assessing costs in this case and I ask that there is very careful scrutiny of the costs that are being claimed by the wife’s legal team. It cannot be right that this level of cost expenditure occurs in a case of such modest assets. The costs claimed are about 36% of the total assets held, according to the District Judge by the parties. The burden that this now creates upon the parties, especially the wife must be immense.
- The District Judge found that the total pot of capital in the case was £345,686
Towards the end of the judgment, HH J Wildblood QC set down a marker for future litigation conduct
86….I wish to make it plain that, if I find any more money is being wasted by this wife on costs, I will impose costs sanctions – if she, or the husband, pursues any more pointless or unmeritorious issues I will reflect that in a costs order (and I say that without prejudice to any arguments and applications that may be advanced about existing cost expenditure). It seems to me at least highly possible that past dissipation of assets (which in a big money case can be of obvious importance) may be regarded as totally overshadowed now with the exigencies of the current very limited financial circumstances of these parties with the true focus of this case now being on the limited issues that I have set out above – especially relevant will be these questions: i) Where are these people to live and ii) what incomes are these people to have?.
- Although I am not in any way deciding the point now, I foresee that the husband will have a difficult task in contending that this wife should face a time limit to any order for periodical payments particularly if it involves a s28(1A) bar but even without such a bar.
- I intend that the above issues must be adhered to. There will be no more profligate expenditure on legal costs. To that end I wish to record that any District Judge assessing the costs of either party from this point on until conclusion of the rehearing should disallow that parties’ costs insofar as the costs of any party (from this point onwards) exceed £7,500 unless a) any party has made submissions to me that I should revise that figure or b) the judge carrying out the assessment considers that an extension beyond that figure was genuinely necessary.
- I strongly recommend now that the parties make every effort to resolve their differences without the need for the rehearing to take place.
- I reserve the costs of the appeal until conclusion of the rehearing. Both of these parties know what their own financial circumstances are and, with the level of costs that she has incurred, the wife should know about her tax credit position (and, if she doesn’t she needs to find it out hurriedly). Although I do not know what the husband’s income is, he does. If it were to be shown on fresh evidence that the District Judge was correct about his income, that would be bound to have an impact on the orders for costs that I would make.