Given how much fun the last case about judicial recusal was to write about, I was pleased to see a new one.
This one, Mackay v Mackay 2015, relates to what is presumably a big money divorce. As the amounts of money are discussed as £X million and £Y million, we can’t be sure exactly how much money, but a decent estimate is that it is at least two million, and probably quite a bit more.
In this case, Holman J was made aware of a situation.
I personally have had no prior involvement in this case whatsoever prior to today. Very early in the hearing today, Mr Valentine Le Grice QC, who appears today on behalf of the husband (but does not act for him generally in these proceedings), said that there were certain facts that he, Mr Le Grice, had been informed about that required to be drawn to my attention in case they impacted upon the appropriateness of my dealing with this case at the substantive hearings. There has been no suggestion, nor could there be, that I should not deal with this directions stage of this case today. I was somewhat surprised to hear that, since the full names of the husband simply do not impact upon me at all and, to put it bluntly but colloquially, I have simply never ever heard of him before. Further, when the husband came into court, he is not somebody who, frankly, I have the least recognition of, or the slightest recollection of ever having met; nor, indeed, do I have the slightest recognition of the wife, who is also in court.
My interest was massively piqued here. If the Judge doesn’t know the names of the parties, and doesn’t recognise their faces, under what scenario could there possibly be a suggestion that the Judge might have to consider whether it was appropriate for him to continue? (I have to confess that the idea of some sort of Eyes Wide Shut masked ball scenario came to mind, but of course it isn’t that)
I am a very open judge and I have never concealed, for instance by entries in “Who’s Who” and Debrett’s “People of Today”, that one of my recreations is sailing. I was told that the husband is also keen on sailing. I have been told that he thinks that in the more distant past he has competed in boats racing against boats in which I myself was also racing. Whether or not that is so is, frankly, completely irrelevant to the situation with which I am now faced. However, I was also informed that the husband knew that I am a member (as I am) of a certain sailing club. He is not a member of that club. He is a member of another sailing club of which I am not a member, but the question was raised whether, through my membership of the sailing club, I might know or have friendship with certain sailing friends of the husband.
Certainly the fact that at some point in the past, the husband might have seen Holman J’s catamaran, or what have you, either sail off into the distance or whistle past it at a rate of knots during a race is neither here nor there.
Whether they might, as fellow afficiandos of the sail, have some mutual friends, is a possibility.
- A list containing 14 names was then produced to me. It is right to say that I recognised as names every name on that list. The majority of the people named I do not personally know at all. One or two of the others on the list I know very slightly or have met at some stage in the past. None of that, frankly, impacts on me at all. However, there is one name on the list which for the purposes of this judgment I will call “AB” (although those are not the person’s actual initials). I was told that he is somebody whom the husband knows well. I was told that, in the past, there have been business dealings between, or involving, the husband and AB. I was told that the husband currently meets AB about once a month and met him as recently as about two weeks ago. I was told that in the past AB has stayed at these parties’ villa in the south of France whilst participating in a sailing event.
- On behalf of the wife, Mr Nigel Dyer QC said on instructions that she did not appreciate that, and doubts whether, the true strength and extent of the connection between the husband and AB is as great as has been described by Mr Le Grice. Without hearing oral evidence on the point, which would be disproportionate and extraordinarily invidious, I have to take the state of affairs as being as described by Mr Le Grice.
- AB is not someone whom I would describe as a close personal friend of mine. He is, however, someone whom I have known for many years. There is, undoubtedly, friendship between us, friendship also between him and my wife, and friendship between me and his wife. He and his wife are people whom I and/or my wife meet from time to time in the sailing social context, and we and AB have numerous other mutual friends in common.
- The question that arises is whether that connection of a shared mutual relationship with AB is such that I should not have further involvement in this case. The expressed position of Mr Le Grice on behalf of the husband was that he was merely drawing these facts to my attention so that I should be aware of them. There was no application by Mr Le Grice that I should recuse myself as a result of them.
- The position of the wife, after Mr Dyer had had an opportunity privately to discuss the matter and take instructions from her, was that she was not concerned about this mutual relationship and that she did not apply that I should recuse myself
Well, that’s that then. The father knows AB fairly well, and AB also knows Holman J fairly well. Neither father nor mother say that this intersection would make Holman J unsuitable to hear the case. That’s that.
Aha! Not quite. If you’ve been following the Appleton v Gallagher divorce case, you may have picked up that there is something of a schism in the High Court about divorce and publicity. On the one hand, represented by Mostyn J, is the school of thought that there should be no publicity in divorce proceedings unless the case itself represents case law and that divorcing celebrities or millionaires should not have their innermost financial affairs set out by the Press just because they are getting divorced. On the other hand, represented so far chiefly by Holman J, is the transparency camp, which is publishing the details in judgments and thus the Press have access to it. The Appleton v Gallagher case is going up to the Court of Appeal to see who might be right.
If you are a millionaire or celebrity who wants privacy then, at the moment, you might well prefer that your divorce is not dealt with by a pro-transparency Judge, or one who you think might be pro-transparency.
The Wife makes this implied motivation explicit.
- The position of the wife did, however, go further than that. One of the applications that was issued by the husband on 11th September 2015 and returnable today was for orders to do with privacy. He sought orders that the hearings in October and February should be heard not only in private, but with the press and media excluded; and, further (most unusually in my experience) some advance order as to the terms in which any judgment might ultimately be couched. To exclude the press even from a hearing held in private is these days a strong step, and one which can only be taken in tightly circumscribed circumstances provided for in the relevant rules and practice direction; but it is known at the Bar that I am a judge who favours as much openness as possible in all court proceedings. Mr Dyer, frankly, speculated that the purpose of the husband in even referring to the possibility of overlapping friendships was a device deliberately aimed at causing me to recuse myself.
- It is, indeed, of the utmost importance that judges are very astute to spot, and not be trapped by, attempts to manipulate the identity of a judge for whatever purpose. Obviously, there may be judges who are believed to make high awards or low awards, and it is only too easy for a party who is seeking a low or a high award respectively to try to manipulate the position so that that judge is unable to hear the case. Similarly, it would, indeed, be intolerable if parties could manipulate the position so as to obtain or avoid, according to where their interests lay, a judge who favours openness in legal proceedings as opposed to secrecy. I am very alive to that risk.
- Unquestionably, if nothing had been said today about this shared interest in sailing and the possibility that there may be some overlapping friendships, then I would have continued to deal with this case and there could not have been the slightest difficulty. The fact is that the point has been raised. The fact is that it has been identified that amongst the friends or associates of the husband is this person, AB, who is also a friend of mine.
(In short, is this sailing issue, a well-disguised attempt at forum shopping?)
- The leading authority on the circumstances in which a judge should recuse himself probably remains Locabail (UK) Limited v Bayfield Properties Limited and others  EWCA Civ 3004, a judgment of the court consisting of the then Lord Chief Justice, Master of the Rolls and Vice-Chancellor. The situation with which I am faced today is not one that falls within the principles which are the focus of that judgment. There is no question in this case of my having any kind of interest in the outcome of these proceedings and, in my view, no question in this case of any possible objective or apparent bias. Indeed, at paragraph 25 of their judgment in that case, the Court of Appeal were at pains to list many circumstances upon which, at any rate ordinarily, no objection could soundly be based. But at paragraph 21 of the judgment there is reference, albeit passing, to a judge recusing himself, “If, for solid reasons, the judge feels personally embarrassed in hearing the case.” Further, the broad approach at paragraph 25 is as follows:
“In most cases, we think, the answer, one way or the other, will be obvious. But if in any case there is real ground for doubt, that doubt should be resolved in favour of recusal. We repeat: every application must be decided on the facts and circumstances of the individual case.”
- I have given very careful consideration indeed to this matter. Apart from some obvious situations where I actually knew a party concerned, I can only recall one occasion in the over 20 years in which I have been a full-time judge, in which I have felt the slightest need to recuse myself for considerations of this kind. In that case, I had a long-term friendship dating back to university with the brother of the husband in the case. Although the brother did not feature at all in the case, it did not seem to me appropriate that I should hear it. This case is more remote than those facts, but I have decided that I do, or might, “feel personally embarrassed” in hearing this case.
- I wish to stress that I believe myself to be an independent-minded and fearless judge. I do not doubt my ability to be detached and objective in decision-making. But the context of this case, as I have outlined above, does, or may, involve making a judgment about the integrity or probity, and possibly the very honesty, of this husband. I do not yet know much about the facts, nor, of course, how the evidence may turn out. But, at any rate at its highest, the wife’s case will involve a proposition that the husband deliberately failed to disclose the discussions that he was having for the sale of his company at that much greater value, and may well involve the proposition that, at some stage or another, he deliberately lied or, certainly, deliberately suppressed the truth. If there is a common friendship with AB, I do feel that it could be a source of personal embarrassment to me in my relationship with AB if I had to find that another friend of his had acted in a fraudulent, devious or untruthful way.
- There is the further consideration in this case that, currently, a two-stage hearing is envisaged, with some months between the first and second stage. Undoubtedly, during that interval, there will be occasions upon which I will be meeting AB, since, as I have said, he is a friend whom I do meet from time to time.
- It seems to me that what I have described does amount in this case to “solid reasons” why I personally, as I do, feel personally embarrassed about further involvement in this case. For those reasons, I must, as I now do, recuse myself from any further involvement in the case after today.
It seems a shame to me that we may be moving towards a scenario where a Judge can’t have interests, hobbies or pastimes outside of the law, for fear that they may bring them into a position where someone they met at “Jam Club”, “Abseilers Anonymous” or simply someone who shares their love of “Yacht Rock” might be a friend of a future Party.
[I know, I had a perfect opportunity to crowbar in a photo of Nicole Appleton, and I decided instead to use a photo of people pretending to be Hall and Oates. I did really want to use the Nicole Appleton photo, but then a voice in my head said “I can’t go for that (no can do)” ]
The weakest recusal I’ve ever seen in real life was a Judge who recused himself from what was going to be a really desperately boring hearing on the basis that one of the parties had a job as an insurance salesman for Norwich Union (you can feel the dullness of this case seep out) and the Judge concluded that he would be potentially embarassed as he had once received an unsolicited telephone call from someone trying to sell him Norwich Union insurance and had put the phone down “more abruptly than perhaps was reasonable”, and it could not be excluded as a possibility that it was the Party in question. If you can suitably anonymise them, I’d love to hear weak recusal decisions or even applications…