MAP v RAP 2014
I don’t often write on the financial side of legal family disputes (I haven’t done divorce law for about ten years, and it is the sort of thing that you rapidly lose expertise in), but this particular ancillary relief case also touches on capacity, and particularly capacity to enter into agreements, so it has some broader impact.
The High Court were dealing here with the wife’s challenge to a financial consent order that she had signed, having dismissed her solicitors. At a later stage, she considered that she had not been in a mental frame of mind where she could properly enter into that consent order – i.e the issue was whether she had capacity to sign it at the time, not just that she signed it and later thought better of it. She had had a long-standing difficulty with bi-polar disorder, which can be a fluctuating condition. This was thus the wife’s appeal of the Judge’s order to approve the financial consent order as final settlement of the financial claims arising from divorce.
The appeal was determined by Mostyn J (back on his area of particular expertise after something of a break)
The permission is sought to appeal this order well out of time on a number of grounds:
1. first, it is said that at the time that the order was made and indeed in the antecedent period leading up to the making of the order, there is prima facie evidence that the proposed appellant, the wife in the divorce proceedings, did not have capacity to enter into that compromise;
2. second, it is said that the court itself had no knowledge of the appellant’s state of mental health, and therefore approved an order on a false or mis-stated basis;
3. third, it is said that – and this ground has shades of duress – that the respondent husband exploited the appellant’s vulnerable position;
4. further, it is said that he at the material time was guilty of material non-disclosure;
5. next it is said that at the relevant time the appellant had inadequate knowledge and was without legal advice; and
6. further, it is said that, looked at overall, the consent order was wrong and should not have been approved, as it was manifestly unfair. It is said – I believe this to be arguable, but it is certainly not agreed – that the effect of the order was to divide the parties’ capital about 80 per cent to the husband and 20 per cent to the wife. Moreover, within the the share that the wife was left with were monies which derived from an inheritance from her mother, and indeed a considerable part of the share that the husband was left with derived from the wife’s mother’s inheritance;
7. finally, it was said that the agreement was demonstrably wrong and unfair because it provided for a clean break leaving the husband with his earnings and pension and the wife only with a modest pension for herself.
On the ground that the consent order was unfair, or so demonstrably wrong that a Judge ought not to have made it, even though it was a consent order, Mostyn J rejected that utterly
I say immediately before I turn to the facts, that inasmuch as a claim is advanced based on non-disclosure or that the consent order was generally unfair, I am completely satisfied that the proposed appeal has no prospect of success. As to the first, the evidence advanced for non-disclosure is but faintly put, and in my view does not come anywhere near establishing the criterion of arguability. As to the complaint that the agreement was generally unfair, that is not a valid basis for seeking to challenge a consent order. (See the decision of Mr. Justice Munby (as he then was) in L v L  1 FLR 26 at para.105).
The appeal therefore was squarely on the basis that the Wife lacked capacity to sign the consent order at that time. Mostyn J remarks that despite people arguing about divorce (and particularly money divorce) for over a century, this is the first time that this particular issue has arisen.
Mostyn J, borrowing from the civil law, and civil procedures, arrives at the conclusion that an order made by consent by a party who lacks capacity to consent is an order that would be invalid and should be set aside. The difficulty of course, is in establishing capacity or lack of it (remember from the Mental Capacity Act 2005 that the starting point is that a person HAS capacity unless there is evidence to the contrary). The order having been made, an appeal was an appropriate route to challenge it.
Mostyn J points to the provisions of Practice Direction 15B (not in force at the time, but in force now)
At the relevant time, I do not believe that Practice Direction 15B was in force, but a Practice Note issued by the Family Justice Council in April 2010 which is in the same terms, more or less, was available. Practice Direction 15B makes it clear that there is a duty on solicitors if they have concerns that a party may lack capacity, that they must notify the court. Paragraph 1.3 says:
“If at any time during proceedings there is reason to believe that a party may lack capacity to conduct the proceedings, then the court must be notified and directions sought to ensure that this issue is investigated without delay”.
It is a surprising fact that neither solicitor at any stage thought it appropriate to notify the court that there may be question marks over the wife’s capacity. The wife’s solicitors themselves were well aware that there were question marks in this regard as a letter was written by them to their opponents on 23rd January 2012 stating:
“We remain concerned as to our client’s capacity to provide instructions, and accordingly are seeking clarity on this point”.
I should say that that letter that was written when the wife was acting for herself but when her solicitors were presumably still formally on the record. It is fair to me to record Mr. Castle’s submission that at that time the view was taken by the author of that letter only on looking at the papers, but be that as it may that question mark should have led those solicitors to have notified the court. Equally, the husband’s solicitors were well aware in September 2011 that the appellant had been admitted to hospital, there was a letter to that effect, and they must have formed views as to the capacity of the wife, but they did not notify the court. Had the court been notified then I do not believe we would be in the position we now are.
What the Court had was evidence about the Wife’s mental health difficulties and that before the consent order had been entered into, her mental health seemed to have deteriorated in such a way that those advising her were concerned about her capacity. But the Wife stopped instructing solicitors and by the time she signed the consent order, she was representing herself. Thus, there was no hard and fast evidence about the state of her capacity and ability to make reasoned decisions on the day she signed the consent order.
Capacity for the purposes of entering into a compromise was discussed by the Court of Appeal in the first Dunhill v Burgin case and in the prior case of Bailey v Warren  EWCA (Civ) 51. In that latter case at para.126, Lady Justice Arden said this:
“The assessment of capacity to conduct proceedings depends to some extent on the nature of the proceedings in contemplation. I can only indicate some of the matters to be considered in accessing a client’s capacity. The client would need to understand how the proceedings were to be funded. He would need to know about the chances of not succeeding and about the risk of an adverse order as to costs. He would need to have capacity to make the sort of decisions that are likely to arise in litigation. Capacity to conduct such proceedings would include the capacity to give proper instructions for and to approve the particulars of claim, and to approve a compromise. For a client to have capacity to approve a compromise, he would need insight into the compromise, an ability to instruct his solicitors to advise him on it, and an understanding of their advice and an ability to weigh their advice”.
Applying this test I believe that it is arguable, indeed strongly arguable, that between the time that the consent order was said to be formed in August 2011, right through to the time that the consent order was made on 19th April 2012 the wife did not have the requisite capacity while she was in hospital. In my view the case that she had capacity at that time is unarguable. Following her return from hospital it is true that she gained some kind of an improvement although she remained heavily medicated, but as against that one has to remember that she was making the impulsive and unwise decision to represent herself. So, I am of the view that there is an issue of capacity that deserves to be tried.
It is a pity that the Supreme Court has not pronounced, because there is a division between the judges in the jurisprudence as to whether the capacity in question should be investigated along a prolonged timeline, or just at the point of the contract itself. But, either way, I believe that the case is distinctly arguable, and so I would grant permission to appeal in relation to that ground as well as into the ground of lack of actual consent or withdrawal of consent. But, as I have indicated, I believe that this is a matter which can properly be tried at first instance.
Mostyn J did not determine the appeal finally, but merely those procedural points – could the Wife apply to set aside the consent order, would the consent order be invalid if she were proven to lack capacity at the time, and what the mechanism for the appeal would be. The appeal itself was listed for two days and a lot will turn on the evidence in relation to capacity.
[It is possible, particularly when one looks at detailed consent orders about contact, that the same issues could arise. It would be prudent to look at Practice Direction 15B and to alert the Court if such concerns arise]