Over the weekend, my eye was caught by the latest development in a big money, multinational divorce case that could have major implications. Businessman David Thursfield has been sentenced to two years in prison in his absence for attempting to hide assets in a bitter split from former wife Linda. This is the longest sentence imposed to date for failure to disclose assets in a divorce case.
At the High Court His Hon Judge Purle QC said that “millions of dollars appear to have vanished,” adding: “I am satisfied that the husband is deliberately refusing to reveal what happened to it.”
Mr Thursfield was in contempt, the judge ruled, for failing to comply with court orders to disclose his assets. He was imposing a prison sentence “as a coercive measure in order to encourage full and prompt compliance hereafter”.
According to a report in the Mail, Mr Thursfield now plans to appeal the ruling.
Mr and Mrs Thursfield originally reached a divorce settlement in 2005 while living in Michigan but had in fact met in the Midlands in the 1970s, when Mr Thursfield, now 67, worked as a plant manager for long-gone carmaker British Leyland. He later earned millions in a globe-trotting job for the Ford Motor Company, where he developed, according to the Mail, a reputation as a ferocious cost-cutter.
Not long after the pair split, after 27 years together, Mr Thursfield married his third wife Rachel.
British-born Linda, a former dental surgeon, told the Mail:
“I’d moved all over the world with David and I’d given up my profession for him. It was like I’d passed my expiration date and he was trading me in for a younger model.”
After her financial settlement, in which she was awarded £1.1 million and a mansion in Detroit, the former Mrs Thursfield hired both private detectives and forensic accountants to investigate her one-time husband’s wealth. They are reported to have uncovered evidence of a Swiss bank account, a trust fund and the purchase of an expensive property in theBahamas.
An alleged multimillion pound payment from a former employer was also discussed during he proceedings.
Mr Thursfield pleaded poverty – saying the cost of this third wedding, school fees and other expenses had left him “penniless”.
Judge Purle, however, was unimpressed, saying:
“The substantial wealth that he previously enjoyed – which, on his own case, ran into many millions of dollars…appears to have vanished in the sense that it is no longer (or at least is presented as no longer) within his control.”
The bottom line in any divorce case has to be fairness. It does not matter whether the wealthier partner in a marriage is a woman or a man, they deserve recompense for the time and effort they have devoted to the union, especially if they have made economic sacrifices such as giving up their career to raise children or support their spouse. That is why the principle of sharing was introduced to family law. Under this principle, the wealthier partner is expected to fairly share their assets with their spouse upon divorce.
And after 27 years there can be no doubt that Mrs Thursfield deserves a fair settlement.
But if you are a wealthy husband who has fully dramatically out of love with your spouse, such strictures can be hard to accept. Blood rushes to the head and bitterness reigns. Why should they get such a huge chunk? I worked hard for that money!
Women too are now wrestling with such dark emotions.
Inevitably, the temptation to hide those shiny assets in offshore bank accounts and complex trust funds proves too much for many. In my decades as divorce lawyer, I have seen so many wealthy spouses try and chance it this way, . And that is precisely why we are one of the few family law firms to employ a dedicated team of forensic accountants here.
Of course, we do not know at this stage whether Mr Thursfield’s appeal will be successful, or even whether he will file an appeal at all. But I find Judge Purle’s ruling very encouraging. Family lawyers are being left in no doubt by the judiciary sitting elsewhere in the civil courts that the same law applies to what family lawyers have hitherto tended to regard as a domain unto themselves.
Times, though, have changed. Long gone are the days of self help, and the Hildebrand Rules which permitted a certain amount of self help to investigate the whereabouts of hidden assets. As their Lordships made clear in the Court of Appeal in the Imerman case, self help will not be sanctioned no matter how potentially devious the husband. There is no such thing as the Hildebrand Rules now, and furthermore, if a wife wants help, she has to turn to the courts to obtain it provided she can afford it. Only recently this no nonsense approach was further reinforced by the judgement of the Court of Appeal in the Prest case. So from a practitioner perspective life looks pretty tough for the weaker spouse even though the Family law courts are standing in line with the rest of the Civil courts.
This case which has no doubt incurred huge costs to get into court is being as hard fought as they come. There were four judgements released today about this case. But the civil sanction (should it ever be applied) is a whopper in a field where the judiciary sitting in the family courts do normally have to consider the consequences for the entire family, including the children, and arrive at a fair outcome for both parties. Family judges are normally loathe to meet out the toughest of sentences although in this case no doubt this particular husband appears to have thoroughly deserved it.
Sometimes I think family law is (figuratively) applied by the Judges as if they are wading through marshmallow. There is however no such approach in the rest of civil law. There, the gimlet-eyed judiciary wield a guillotine and there will always be one loser. I’m not so sure that this overall approach sits well with family law – but that is what we are being told in the clearest of tones from the Court of Appeal downwards. We will see what happens in the Prest case when that reaches the Supreme Court. There the differing approaches of our family judges, who strive to achieve fairness, will be minutely compared to the to the rest of the civil judges for whom fairness has nothing to do with it.
Meanwhile, for those like Mrs Thursfield, who can afford to litigate in this country and chase her husband across the world with an army of lawyers to force him to pay up, the system is grinding along and still works, although it is time-consuming and no doubt eye-wateringly expensive.
For all the rest however – those who cannot afford to spend huge sums and where the assets in dispute would not justify doing so anyway – applying draconian civil remedies instead of the good old Hildebrand Rules to an average husband and wife in an average case, strikes me as applying a sledgehammer to crack a nut.