When clients complete their Form E, a lengthy document which should give full, frank and honest disclosure of their entire financial position, they are often under a misapprehension about the value of the contents of their homes and their personal items, such as jewellery. They tend to use the insurance value – ie the replacement value, when in fact the court needs to know the actual value of the assets, that is to say, their value if they were being sold on the open market at that point in time.
So furniture which might be listed on the Form E with substantial figures next to it suddenly becomes worth much less, unless of course it is and antique and does have a signficant value. The same is true of jewellery, cars and boats – the market value of all of these tends to drop like a stone in value once sold.
But contents, cars, boats and jewellery can cause huge arguments because they continue to hold disproportionate value in the eyes of the owner or purchaser. Their true value may in reality be insignificant when viewed in the context of “the judicial prism” but that won’t be enough to stop a determined litigant. However, a court must consider any litigation in terms of proportionality and will not allow expensive and protracted litigation if the value in dispute simply does not justify the time and cost.
A new case illustrates the power of such personal possessions to fuel litigation. It concerns a retired divorcee who has been refused permission to appeal a ruling that she could not claim disputed jewellery from her ex-husband.
Judith Saunders, a former who now lives in Alicante, had pursued her ex-husband through the courts for the return of a 22-carat gold wedding ring, two sets of earrings and a necklace. She claims to have spent around £100,000 on her legal battle, despite the fact that the jewellery is only worth around £7,000 in total.
Mrs Saunders, who has since remarried, said he had been motivated by principle rather than money. Her husband had been unemployed when they met, she claimed, and so she had paid for their wedding rings. She had “paid for it and wanted it back”, she said.
She and former husband Trevor Unwin married in 1970 and separated in 2004. They finally received their decree absolute in 2007, 37 years after their wedding. By the time they went their separate ways Mr Unwin had enjoyed a successful career and the couple were now worth around £1.5 million. They divided their wealth, with Mrs Saunders reportedly receiving two substantial properties in Sussex but the former couple then fell out over the disputed jewellery.
After a prolonged courtroom clash, her ex-husband handed over the wedding ring last year, but a judge dismissed her claim to the remaining jewellery.
Mrs Saunders applied for permission to appeal, claiming the earlier judge’s decision had been “‘irrational, perverse and bizarre”. But her arguments were rejected by the High Court. Lady Justice Gloster said she did not have “enough ammunition (to) have a real prospect of up-ending the [earlier] judge’s findings of fact.”
She added: “I would be doing [Mrs Saunders] no service by allowing this appeal to proceed…You would be best to try to put it behind you.”
According to a report in the Mail, Mr Unwin denies that ex-wife had bought the disputed jewellery. He did not participate in the Appeal Court hearing.
I cannot, of course, comment on the intricacies of the couple’s case, or express a view on whether Mrs Saunders had a fair claim, but I do believe Lady Justice Gloster’s comments are very wise. Of course, none of us are robots and it can be very hard to completely let go of the past, especially after such a long marriage. But once a fair settlement has been reached and the final curtain has come down, it is far better for all parties to move on with their lives. I would certainly counsel any of my clients against years of expensive litigation over relatively small sums.