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In a case which vividly revealed that litigation is almost always a far worse option than compromise, most of an ex-couple’s modest marital assets – just £42,000 – were eaten up by a sterile jurisdictional debate that could benefit neither of them.
Following the couple’s separation after 35 years of marriage, a judge had ordered equal division of their assets. The husband paid his wife £21,000 but went on to successfully challenge the order after arguing that the judge had no jurisdiction to make it. That was on the basis that no decree nisi had been pronounced at the time of the decision due to the difficulty in finding the couple’s marriage certificate.
In upholding the wife’s appeal against that decision, the High Court found that the judge did in fact have jurisdiction. Although he had given an indication as to the outcome of the case, his order had not been drawn up until after the decree nisi was issued.
Describing the case as ‘deeply depressing’, the Court lamented the substantial legal costs of what was ultimately a pointless argument. The ex-couple had been warned of the potential costs consequences at the outset but had declined to settle their differences. The wife’s legal costs alone came to more than £16,000.
Ordering the husband to pay the wife’s legal costs, Mrs Justice Eleanor King observed, “The jurisdictional argument has been a luxury which this family, of all families, simply could not afford even if, as was indicated to me at the start of the hearing, the litigation was by then driven entirely by considerations of costs.”