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That, frankly, hit me like a dart

 

This is an ancillary relief case, in which Holman J was dealing with a disputed application for enforcement of financial orders made by Baker J. The case had run up costs of around £2.2 million.  At the hearing, the wife had given her evidence, and the husband had completed almost all of his evidence in chief.

 

And then, something happened that led Holman J to say the title of this piece.

This morning, the husband was in the course of giving his oral evidence-in-chief. I happened to comment to him how regrettable it was that these parties had not been able to resolve their differences by agreement long ago, before so much costs were incurred, which neither of them can apparently afford to pay. The husband then observed that it was I who had conducted the FDR. That, frankly, hit me like a dart. 

 

Holman J stopped the evidence, to take stock

 

I do not know what the husband might have been planning on going on to say with regard to the course or content of the FDR, for, of course, I immediately stopped him from saying any more. I broke off his evidence altogether whilst I and Mr Chandler, in particular, could take stock of the situation.

 

It was nobody’s fault that this had not been spotted.  The wife was in person, and husband’s counsel had been recently engaged and had huge amounts to deal with. Holman J had not himself spotted it, explaining of course that he had dealt with a huge number of cases in the intervening period.

 

  1. If any of the counsel who had appeared at the FDR were still engaged and appearing at this hearing, I have no doubt that any one or more of them would have flagged up at once that I had conducted the FDR and, accordingly, that I could not conduct this hearing. It also goes without saying that if I, personally, had had the least recollection or appreciation before this case began yesterday morning or, indeed, in its early stages yesterday morning, that I had conducted the FDR, I would have said unhesitatingly and without more ado that I was disqualified from conducting the present hearing and that another judge would have to be identified.
  2. I do not accept any personal responsibility for what has happened. So far as I am aware, there is nothing in any of the highly selective documents that have been prepared for the present hearing which identifies me as having conducted the FDR. As I commented earlier today, in the 18 months or so between the FDR on 15 December 2017 and late July 2019, I have probably conducted hearings in at least 500 cases, some of them long, some of them very short, and not including in that figure the very large number of cases that I consider and adjudicate upon on paper, in particular when sitting in the Administrative Court. So it did not impact upon me for one moment when I embarked upon this hearing that I had conducted the FDR. Frankly, it did not occur to me to enquire whether I had done so, because one is so accustomed to the lawyers for the parties, or the court administration, ensuring, in advance, that cases are not listed before the judge who conducted the FDR.

 

Having taken stock, both the husband and wife were prepared for Holman J, who was nearly half-way through the case to continue and see it through, despite the usual provisions that a Judge who dealt with the FDR plays no part in the later case.

 

(For those who don’t do money cases, an FDR is a Financial Dispute Resolution hearing, and the Judge at that hearing basically gives a steer as to what he or she would do, being able to speak freely because they would not be the Judge at a contested hearing. Sometimes that steer leads to one side or another being willing to compromise and the case settle. Sometimes, as here, it doesn’t and the case still goes on to a fight.   It is a bit like a Settlement Conference. So imagine a Settlement Conference, not working, and then a Care Order is made by another Judge and then later there’s an application for a Recovery Order that accidentally goes before the Judge who does the settlement conference, but it is only mid way through the evidence that this gets discovered )

 

However, Holman J looked carefully at the rules and found that rather than it being the Judge “should” not be involved in any further decisions, the wording was ‘must not’ and that he could not find a basis for allowing it, even with consent, although there was skilful argument that the overriding objective in the Family Procedure Rules might allow such a thing where both sides consented.

 

  1. I have, in the limited time available to me, given very careful and anxious consideration to whether, building upon what Lawrence Collins LJ had said at paragraph 35 and 36 and Goldring LJ had said at paragraph 61, I might hold that the requirement of the rule can be waived by the parties. Whilst in some circumstances at some future date it may be open to the Court of Appeal to develop the jurisprudence in that way, it currently seems to me that it is not open to me to do so. Those observations in those paragraphs are entirely obiter. As I have said, it seems to me that the policy as described by Thorpe LJ in paragraph 26 and his very clear statements in the last two sentences of paragraph 28 simply preclude waiver.
  2. For those reasons, and as it has now emerged (and has been checked and verified) that I did hear the FDR between these two parties on 15 December 2017, I conclude that the mandatory effect of rule 19.7(2) is simply that, as the rule says, I must have no further involvement with this matter at all. Judges have many powers and discretions under rules of court to relax, or even waive altogether, the impact of many rules upon a party or parties. But where a rule says, without discretion, that a judge must not do something, he must not do it. In a sentence, he must obey the law.
  3. For that reason, I propose to bring this hearing now to a complete halt. Anything that I have said during the course of the hearing, including indications that I gave as to the manner in which I intended to deal with some of the applications, are, in my view, complete nullities. This will have to go back to be heard from scratch before another judge on a date just as soon as it can be fixed.

 

https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2019/2135.html

 

Shokrollah-Babaee v Shokrollah-Babae [2019] EWHC 2135 (Fam) (25 July 2019)    

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