I blogged last year about an ongoing divorce case involving two brothers who had used what they considered to be damning financial documents from their brother-in-law’s computer to help in their sister’s divorce case. They claimed the documents, held on a computer, showed the estranged husband was not giving full financial disclosure and had “hidden” assets.
At that time, the case was ongoing. It has now moved on and the ruling is in. And the landmark decision from the Court of Appeal removes protection previously afforded thousands of people in divorce proceedings.
Until the judgement this month, spouses who unearthed information showing their partner was “hiding” money - therefore not giving the court a true picture of their assets to help in reaching a fair financial settlement – could copy it and put it before the courts to aid their case. These were the Hildebrand rules.
But the court reversed the principle, intended to help those without significant clout, in a case involving a millionaire.
Property tycoons Robert and Vincent Tchenguiz had attempted to use information about the financial affairs of their sister's multi-millionaire husband at her divorce hearing. However, following the ruling, they must comply with a High Court order to hand back to Vivian Imerman the documents copied from a computer. The businessman successfully claimed that the brothers, two IT staff and a solicitor had no right to retain or use the material which was downloaded without his knowledge from a computer in Mayfair offices they shared.
The judgement came as a surprise to me. The precedent was there for this being allowed and backed by case law. The existence of the papers suggested there might be additional information available to the court about Mr Imerman’s financial position that would not otherwise have been disclosed. To make a fair assessment of assets, a court needs to be in possession of the all the facts. This ruling means that anyone attempting to obtain such evidence in future could face a criminal charge. This has to put them at a disadvantage and leave the courts in the position of not getting the full picture in some cases.
It leaves little room for estranged wives – or husbands – particularly those in a weaker financial position, to make investigations to come up with the proverbial “ace up their sleeve” if they feel their ex-partner is not being completely transparent about their finances.
I fear this development does nothing to improve the image of divorce.