Long Road To Ruin: Another salutary tale of destructive litigation

The judgment in M v M, which popped up on Bailii today, is notable not so much for what it decided, but for the sad tale of utterly destructive litigation that it contains. Such tales appear all too frequently in the law reports, and despite the salutary message that they contain, I'm sure that they will not deter future generations of family litigants from embarking upon a similarly destructive course of action.

Nevertheless, I feel it my duty to retell the tale, in the hope that it may at least deter one couple from falling into the destructive litigation trap.

The first paragraph of the judgment of Robert Peel QC, sitting as a High Court judge, sets the scene:

"After nearly 22 years of marriage, which must have contained happy times together and during which 3 children were born to whom the Husband ("H") and Wife ("W) are devoted, this couple embarked on ruinous and recriminatory financial remedy proceedings. There have been 13 oral hearings, including 2 FDRs and an aborted 5-day trial, and 4 applications by H for permission to appeal disposed of on paper at High Court and Court of Appeal level. The combined legal costs are £594,000. The litigation, and attendant bitterness, has led to fractured relations between H and the children."

It then gets worse:

"One might be forgiven for assuming that all this energy has been expended over great wealth. This is not so. The only liquid asset of any substance is the proceeds of sale of the FMH, some £630,000 currently held on solicitors' account. That sum is now all but offset by the parties' debts, not least the legal fees. Thus, the true net liquid wealth is virtually nil."

Ouch. This depressingly familiar outcome led Judge Peel to comment: "It is hard to express what a calamitous waste of resources this has been." Quite.

For the purpose of this post (which, as I have indicated, is to deter others from frittering away family resources on destructive litigation) I do not need to go into details of the case, and the matters that were being argued. Suffice to say that the issues included two of those so favoured by couples determined line the pockets of their lawyers: arguing that one party's interest in a family company was a matrimonial asset and (the golden oldie) raising the issue of conduct. Remarkably, the parties each essentially agreed not to pursue these issues (the first raised by H, the second by W) just before the final hearing, and after well over a year of expensive and brutal litigation.

And who was to blame for the litigation being so destructive? Both parties, to a greater or lesser degree, as Judge Peel explained:

"Neither party is entirely free from blame in the conduct of the litigation. On W's side, her approach to the conduct allegations led to the trial in September last year being aborted and undoubtedly raised the stakes and the litigation temperature.

"H is more blameworthy. He launched numerous applications and appeals, some of which were clearly misconceived. He has throughout exaggerated W's resources. His Form E1 and subsequent Form E were deficient in certain respects as demonstrated in cross examination. Moreover, there is some force in the submission that W has engaged more constructively than H in the open offers and has been much closer to the mark than H."

And what of the outcome? Well, this is the saddest part, and it is summarised in the last paragraph of the judgment:

"This self-defeating litigation is now over. It is scarcely credible that at the end of it all, they emerge with about £5,000 each of liquid assets, having incurred nearly £600,000 of costs, but such is the reality. There may be worse examples of disproportionate and ill-judged litigation, but none spring readily to mind."

If you are so inclined, you can read the full horror of the judgment here. If you are a potential family litigant, please learn something from it.