Read v Panzone: another case of lengthy, destructive and disproportionate legal proceedings

Family Law | 17 Dec 2019 0

Read v Panzone

The Court of Appeal judgment in Read v Panzone was published in early October. It’s been on my ‘to do’ list for a post here ever since, but other things have got in the way. I thought I better get around to writing the post, as it contains a familiar but nevertheless essential message for anyone involved in family litigation. 

Bruising and expensive litigation 

The message is actually contained in the very first paragraph of the leading judgment of Lady Justice King. I will quote the paragraph in full: 

“This is yet another case where a highly educated couple with young children has engaged in lengthy, destructive and disproportionate legal proceedings. These disputes have continued for over five years with emotionally bruising and expensive litigation in relation to both money and the children of the marriage. The present appeal is a second appeal in the financial remedy proceedings. The costs to date are in excess of £500,000. The only substantial asset in the case, a flat in Panama (“the Panama property”), has a net value of only £298,377. As a consequence, as the District Judge said in his first instance judgment: “There is no way that the parties’ comfortable lifestyle can be maintained. Much of this has been caused by the intolerable burden of costs”.”

How many times have we seen such expressions of judicial exasperation? How can two highly educated and obviously intelligent people fail to see the futility of spending more arguing over assets than the assets are worth, ending up considerably worse off than they were before? Well, they can, and they do. But please, don’t let it happen to you. 

I won’t go into the detail of the case, but the latest appeal revolved around another one of those arguments as to who owned property – the party who paid for the property, or the person to whom the property was transferred when the property was purchased? So often in financial remedy cases, we see assets that were acquired by one of the parties but were transferred to a third party, often a member of the purchasing party’s family, possibly with the intention of ensuring that the property is out of the reach of the other party to the marriage. 

The property here is, as you’ve no doubt guessed, the Panama property. The Panama property was purchased from funds that came from the husband, but the legal ownership of the property was vested in a company, the sole shareholder of which was the husband’s mother. The court held that the husband was actually the beneficial owner (i.e. the true owner) of the property. His mother appealed against that finding, and the Court of Appeal dismissed her appeal. 

New Year’s resolution 

I have seen cases like these, in which a family’s financial assets are dissipated by the costs of continued litigation, more times than I could mention. I have regularly written about them here and warned readers to avoid the trap of being so carried away by the ‘righteousness’ of their case that they lose sight of the damage that their actions are causing (and not just to their wallets – continuous litigation also entails enormous stress and long-term harm to family relationships). Many other family lawyers have given similar warnings. Clearly, however, the message is not getting through. 

Well, perhaps I can make a suggestion. If you are or are about to be, involved in a family dispute then make a New Year’s resolution to do everything you can to bring the dispute to a quick and, if possible, amicable conclusion, and only to embark upon contested litigation as a last resort, mindful that the costs of the litigation must always be in proportion to the value of the matters in dispute. OK, it may not be the catchiest resolution, but you will never regret following it. 

You can read the full judgment in Read v Panzone here. 

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John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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