From The Times, 31 October 2013.
The Young case has exposed shortcomings in a civil law system reliant on voluntary, full, frank and honest disclosure, says Marilyn Stowe.
The final chapter in what has been dubbed “the multimillion-pound divorce battle from hell” is about to play out.
On one side, Michelle Young: convinced that her former husband has hidden his fortune, she has fought since 2006 to uncover his assets.
On the other: Scot Young, former “fixer” to Russian oligarchs, who insists that his £400 million business empire is long gone. A four-week final hearing begins in the High Court today.
Seven years in, the Young case resembles a high-stakes game of pass the parcel. Many of London’s glitziest family law teams have been involved. Forensic accountants have been called in. Investigators have criss-crossed the globe. Even the roll of alleged funders and sponsors includes some of the country’s best-known businessmen.
It is usually said of a case this lengthy that the only winners are the lawyers. When it comes to Young v Young, however, I am not so sure.
Among those to whom I have spoken in the past few weeks, there is an attitude that the case has been “too much” for family lawyers. I take issue with this: the strict rules regarding disclosure have played their part in this case, but are not restricted to family law. But it is, I think, fair to say that the Young case has exposed the shortcomings of a civil law system reliant in the main upon co-operation and voluntary, full, frank and honest disclosure.
Earlier this year, Mrs Young said: “I find it disgraceful the amount of money that has been allowed to be hidden offshore, and that it is legal to put assets out of reach in cases like mine.”
If Scot Young is indeed found to have made his assets “disappear”, he won’t be the first to have done so. Globalisation, along with the swiftness with which international business dealings can take place in 2013, has led many unscrupulous spouses to look overseas.
With the right support, however, today’s practitioners are well-placed to meet the challenges posed by such complex financial cases. M v M, another recent case in which the husband provided little by way of disclosure, is one example: appended to the judgment was an extraordinary chart created by barristers, showing how assets flowed between structures, individuals and intermediaries in Russia, Cyprus and beyond.
What sets the Young case apart is Mr Young’s refusal to comply with the court. Lawyers must act within the strict limits of the law and seek the assistance of the court where necessary. Yet in January 2013 Mr Young was jailed for contempt, after failing to provide court-ordered documentation about his personal finances. Imprisonment is exceptionally rare, and a last resort. So where can the court go from here?
Much will turn upon the judge. Mr Justice Moor is no stranger to the case: indeed, it was he who sentenced Scot Young earlier this year, describing Mr Young’s explanations as “absurd” and “next to useless.”
However any award may be a pyrrhic victory. If the monies are held offshore in complex structures, subject to the laws of different jurisdictions, why would foreign courts help Michelle Young? It might be in their own, wider interests to refuse to co-operate with any orders made by the court in England.
Ultimately in the civil court, justice depends on the voluntary submission of both parties to the court’s jurisdiction. Seven years in, Mrs Young’s battle may be far from over.
Marilyn Stowe is the senior partner at Stowe Family Law