The Prest v Petrodel divorce was one of the five most important cases heard by the Supreme Court in the five years since its creation, Lord Neuberger has declared.
The President of the Supreme Court had been asked by the Independent to cite the five most significant cases since the Supreme Court first opened its doors in October 2009.
Prest v Petrodel concerned a dispute over the ownership of 14 properties which wealthy oil trader Michael Prest had been ordered to give in financial settlement to Yasmin, his wife of 15 years, following their separation. This decision went to the Court of Appeal, where in a contentious ruling, the Lord Justices declared that the properties were not in fact Mr Prest’s, but actually belonged to a number of companies controlled by him, including Petrodel Resources.
But Mrs Prest was unwilling to give up, went to the Supreme Court, and won a unanimous ruling in her favour. The properties in question did belong to Mr Prest, the Justices declared, because he had bought them using his own money in the name of the companies. This had the effect of creating a legal trust entitling Mr Prest to the assets of the companies. Under section 24 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, the courts had jurisdiction to allocate value from the properties in a divorce settlement.
Significantly, the Supreme Court was able to reach this conclusion without ‘piercing the corporate veil’ – that is to say, breaching a fundamental principle of commercial law which states that the assets and liabilities of a corporation are distinct from the assets and liabilities of its shareholders.
During his interview, Lord Neuberger also described the nature of his role as President of the Supreme Court. He and his fellow Justices place more emphasis than their predecessors in the House of Lords on collaboration, informality and accessibility, he told the paper. The President also stressed the importance of detachment when considering “all sorts of very interesting, difficult and challenging points of law affecting all sorts of different people in all sorts of different ways.”
“We don’t have witnesses, whereas trial judges are reminded of the real world constantly. One wants to be detached, but not remote.”