Lord Wilson gives the leading judgment in
to which Lord Neuberger adds a further supporting judgment. The primary question posed by Lord Wilson is whether the Ladd v Marshall
principles that govern the adducing of fresh evidence upon an appeal are applicable to an application to set aside an order for non-disclosure. Ladd v Marshall
provides that in order to be admitted on an appeal, new evidence must not have been able to be obtained at the trial with reasonable diligence; it would probably have had an important influence on the result; and it must be apparently credible.
The Court of Appeal had found that Moylan J had not only taken into account inadmissible evidence from the criminal proceedings against the husband, which the CPS had obtained from foreign countries through the mutual legal assistance scheme, but that the remainder of the evidence had not satisfied the
Ladd v Marshall
test and so it was also inadmissible. The Court of Appeal considered that since the wife could have brought an appeal rather than a fresh action, she should not be able to get around the evidential rules of an appeal.
Lord Wilson, however, pointed out that the overarching issue in a set aside application is the failure to make full and frank disclosure. It would have been the duty of the husband at a hypothetical final hearing to provide disclosure; it was not the duty of the wife to adduce evidence of his resources. The set aside application before Moylan J had been her first opportunity to adduce any evidence to the court. The
Ladd v Marshall
test therefore has no relevance to an application to set aside for non-disclosure. Lord Wilson described the Court of Appeal’s decision as a rare aberration. In order to reinstate Moylan J’s decision to set aside the 2004 consent order, the Supreme Court recognised that it would have to find that Moylan J would have reached the same decision on the admissible evidence (excluding the evidence from the criminal proceedings which had been judged inadmissible). Lord Wilson reviewed the judge’s findings and felt that there was sufficient there that he would have reached the same conclusion even without the inadmissible evidence.
It was open to Moylan J to draw adverse inferences against the husband that he held assets in 2004 that he had failed to disclose given his obfuscation about the origin of the assets and other findings about his lack of credibility.
Lord Neuberger confirms his agreement with Lord Wilson’s judgment and adds that the court should not remit the issue for determination where there has been material non-disclosure provided it would not result in unavoidable injustice to the husband. The Supreme Court therefore had to be satisfied that: (i) Moylan J would have decided that there had been material non-disclosure even without the inadmissible evidence; or (ii) the Supreme Court could conclude for itself that there had been material non-disclosure; or (iii) if the issue was remitted for re-hearing the judge could only realistically come to that conclusion on the admissible evidence. Ultimately he found that all three of those options applied and therefore Moylan’s judgment could be upheld rather than being remitted for re-determination.
Moylan J now faces the unenviable task of determining the extent of the husband’s current assets and the extent to which they represent the proceeds of crime in order to establish what would be a fair award to the wife.
An extremely important element of Lord Wilson’s judgment is that a party’s duty to the court to give full and frank disclosure cannot be avoided by the agreement of the parties. Therefore, the recital in the original consent order, which was an apparent concession by the wife that despite her belief that the husband had not disclosed all his resources she was compromising her claims in the interests of finality, had no effect. This is discussed further below.
Another area of welcome clarification from the Supreme Court is in relation to procedure. The Family Procedure Rule Committee has set up a 'Setting Aside Working Party' to look into clarification of the procedure for setting aside orders, which Munby J as he then was called 'a procedural quagmire' in
L v L
back in 2006. More recently in CS v ACS and BH
 Munby P held that the terms of Practice Direction 30A restricting challenge to a consent order to the appeals procedure only to be ultra vires.
The options available to the victim of nondisclosure currently are:
- to seek leave to appeal out of time;
- to commence a fresh action; and
- to issue an application within the matrimonial proceedings.
The Supreme Court confirmed that all of those avenues are legitimate but endorsed the work of the Working Party and suggested that an appeal will not be the best route where there are disputed facts to be determined since an appeal court is not designed to resolve factual issues. This was demonstrated by
where the Court of Appeal had not been in a position to review the factual evidence. A court at the same level as that which made the original order, including magistrates, is the most appropriate forum. Clarification of the rules will be most welcome.
Lady Hale points out that just because an order is set aside, the case does not have to start again from scratch. There may be areas of common ground, the points affected by the non-disclosure may be isolated and there should be robust case management to further the overriding objective.
In a final comment in
Lady Hale notes that in relation to whether there should have been a tapering award to recognise that as time passed post-separation the business would become less of a matrimonial asset, there is room for more than one view and it would not be appropriate to comment. This therefore remains an area of discretion open for argument. In many ways, it appears that the parties’ respective approaches to the potential for a tapering award was a bar to resolving matters without the need for a hard-fought appeal.
Are these judgments a licence to litigate? Isn’t there a point at which enough is enough and there has to be finality? Will these judgments open the floodgates? I’ve never really been a fan of the floodgates argument – if it means that there is justice, does it matter if more people have access to that justice?
On a practical level, media coverage of family law cases invariably increases the number of enquiries we receive. Often the enquiries are not directly on the subject of the judgment itself. An application to set aside is still not to be undertaken lightly and practitioners would be mistaken to advise their clients otherwise. The only real change of test is where it can be shown that there has been non-disclosure AND that it was deliberate. Where there is evidence of that then the victim of non-disclosure is in a better position than before. Further, there remains the prospect of litigation, not just to achieve the setting aside of the original order, but to then go on to establish what the correct settlement should be. The legal costs, not to mention the stress, anxiety and emotional cost of proceedings, may well outweigh the benefit. For many people, moving on will be of more value on many levels. However, for those who feel they have truly been wronged, the door is open a little wider to revisit an order that may have been obtained by fraud.
Lady Hale’s judgement in Sharland
stresses the established sentiment supported by the vast majority of family lawyers that settling claims by agreement rather than adversarial court battles is in the interests of all those family members involved in and affected by matrimonial disputes, not least the children. I am very much a supporter of mediation and other non-court dispute resolution, but in certain cases court proceedings are unavoidable. That is particularly applicable where either party refuses to pay more than lip service to his or her duty to provide full financial disclosure. The Supreme Court has provided much needed clarification for those who want to seek resolution of their financial affairs without going all the way to a final hearing. The recital in the original consent order that Mrs Gohil believed there had not been full disclosure but that she was agreeing a settlement in the interests of finality was unusual and few lawyers would have advised Mrs Gohil to agree it. In the Supreme Court the recital put under the spotlight the question of whether a spouse who had suspicions of non-disclosure should agree a settlement at some stage before a final hearing or whether to do so would mean she would forfeit her right to seek to set aside that agreement if concrete evidence of non-disclosure later came to light. The upshot would be that she would have to pursue her case all the way to final hearing where she may or may not be able to show the existence of other assets.
The Supreme Court bluntly held that the recital was irrelevant. The duty of full and frank disclosure cannot be avoided by any agreement of the parties, and more to the point the court’s duty cannot be so avoided. This means that parties are free to enter agreements – they do not have to pursue a court-imposed result if they have expressed suspicion; personal autonomy is supported; and non-court dispute resolution can still be used as an avenue for settlement. The burden simply falls on the parties to be honest if they expect their agreements to stand.
It is about parties making an informed decision and the court endorsing an agreement that they have reached. We all have cases where an individual is settling a case in the knowledge that they are conceivably accepting a lesser award than they might achieve at trial. In those cases, we fully explain the situation to the client and to the judge considering the consent application. Ultimately, the court retains discretion and is able to exercise that discretion to make the requested order provided that the disclosure is full and frank.
There is no doubt that the judgment sends a clear message to those who fraudulently misrepresent their finances to the Family Court – an order made on that basis is highly likely to be set aside if evidence of the fraud emerges in the future. Whether that will deter those who are determined not to share their wealth with their former spouse is another matter. For us lawyers advising our slightly reluctant clients, however, the consequences of misleading the court can be clearly spelled out – there can be no finality unless there has been honesty.
It has been a long and arduous journey for the Sharland and Gohil families to get to this point and in my view family law owes them a debt of gratitude for enabling the Supreme Court to clarify the awful mess that the law on set aside was in. There are always going to be questions of degree and extent – at what point would a reasonable person be influenced to enter an agreement? Is that the same point at which a court would have made a significantly different order? How significant is 'significantly different'? But at least we now we know where the burden of proof lies and that the duty of disclosure cannot be avoided even by agreement. If the overwhelming message in the media is that dishonesty has serious consequences, then for once, I approve.