When the lawyer becomes the target

Image: Public Domain, via Piqsels

Every experienced family lawyer will have come across an unrepresented party on the other side of a case who can be unnecessarily difficult. That is an expected part of the job. Family breakdown is obviously an extremely emotional thing, and some people facing it respond in an aggressive way.

But sometimes the lawyers themselves can become the targets for the aggression.

I remember, for example, an incident that happened to me. It may not sound like much, but it was quite concerning at the time. I was acting for a wife in divorce proceedings, whilst working for a firm in Dartford. The husband was acting in person. He was angry, and being difficult to deal with, but nothing that I had not come across before. Then I received a letter from him at my home address. There was nothing untoward in the letter itself, but its intention was clear - the husband was telling me: “I know where you live.” I did not feel particularly intimidated myself, but I had a young family at the time, and I was worried that the husband might carry out his implied threat to come to my home and cause trouble. I therefore asked my firm to take me off of the case, which it did.

And sometimes an irate litigant will use the court itself as the vehicle for their anger at an opposing lawyer, as occurred in the remarkable case Maugham v Wilmot, the latest sad judgment in which appeared on Bailii this week.

For those unfamiliar with the saga of Maugham v Wilmot I will very briefly summarise.

The case concerns ancillary relief proceedings that should have been concluded way back in 2001. However, Mr Wilmot insists to this day that the orders made against him that year were made without jurisdiction, an allegation that is, unsurprisingly, totally without merit. Undeterred by that minor impediment, Mr Wilmot has for the last twenty years carried on an almost relentless campaign to right the wrongs he feels he has suffered, with his targets including his ex-wife, her solicitors, and the court itself. All have been subjected to a never-ending barrage of emails and meritless applications from Mr Wilmot, who also directly communicated with the wife’s solicitor, in breach of a non-harassment order which specifically prohibited him from doing so.

The inevitable result of all of this was that in 2019 Mr Justice Mostyn imposed a general civil restraint order upon Mr Wilmot for a period of two years. The latest judgment concerned an application to extend that order for two more years.

Now obviously this case is unusual. Mr Justice Mostyn described it as one of the worst examples of vexatious conduct that he had ever encountered. However, as David Hodson commented on Twitter, it is an example of the sort of conduct that lawyers, including judges, sadly have to face from time to time.