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Personal and prejudicial matters should be kept out of family courts, says judge

Parents in legal wranglings or financial disputes over their children should not seek to paint an unfavourable picture of their partners during court hearings, a family judge has warned.

In his introductory comments in the case of WC v HC (Financial Remedies Agreement), Mr Justice Peel said the wife’s comments “descended into a number of personal, and prejudicial matters” which, in his opinion, were irrelevant to the case.

At the Pre-Trial Review, the judge set out that the parties’ s25 statements were limited to 20 pages of narrative and should be typed in “a font no smaller than 12 point and with 1 ½ or double spacing”.

While H complied, and W appeared to comply, she had, in fact, used smaller font and spacing meaning the document was about 27 pages compressed within the 20 page limit provided for by the judge, meaning the wife’s statement was about 33% longer than the husband’s.

“This is completely unacceptable, and W’s legal team should not have permitted it to happen. Court Orders, Practice Directions and Statements of Efficient Conduct are there to be complied with, not ignored. The purpose of the restriction on statement length is partly to focus the parties’ minds on relevant evidence, and partly to ensure a level playing field,” said Mr Justice Peel.

“Why is it fair for one party to follow the rules, but the other party to ignore them?  Why is it fair for the complying party to be left with the feeling that the non-complying party has been able to adduce more evidence to his/her apparent advantage?” he added.

Mr Justice Peel highlighted that paragraph 11 of the High Court Statement of Efficient Conduct of Financial Remedy Proceedings states that s25 statements must only contain evidence, and “on no account should contain argument or other rhetoric”.

But W’s long document contained “a number of personal, and prejudicial matters”.

“Parties, and their legal advisers, may be under the impression that to describe the other party in pejorative terms, and seek to paint an unfavourable picture, will assist their case. It is high time that parties and their lawyers disabuse themselves of this erroneous notion,” said Mr Justice Peel.

“Judges will deal with relevant evidence, and will not base decisions on alleged moral turpitude or what Coleridge J once famously described disapprovingly (albeit in a slightly different context) as a “rummage through the attic” of the marriage in G v G [2002] EWHC (Fam) 1339,” he added.

Furthermore, the working day before the hearing, H served on W a financial analysis of matrimonial expenditure through the parties’ joint account in 2018 and 2019. The itemised schedule consisted of thousands of entries.

W’s legal team unsurprisingly objected to late receipt of this analysis, however, they responded with a schedule of their own in respect of sole accounts so as to give a more complete picture.

“I deprecate the practice, which appears to be prevalent, of lawyers producing at the eleventh hour spreadsheet analysis of expenditure during the marriage (and/or since separation) based on primary documents such as bank and credit card statements which have been in their possession for many months. If an exercise such as this is to be relied upon, it must be provided well in advance of the final hearing (I suggest before the PTR or final directions hearing) so that the issues, and evidence, can be properly identified and case managed,” said Mr Justice Peel.

“It seemed to me at the start of the trial that far and away the most material aspect of the case was W’s reasonable needs. By the end of the trial, my view on that had not altered. It is a moot point whether the wide-ranging, and at times bad-tempered, inquiry by the parties into a multiplicity of other issues achieved much of value,” concluded Mr Justice Peel.

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