Secret Divorce

In British Columbia, divorce and family court case files are not available for public viewing. Only the parties, their lawyers and any other lawyer can search a family court file.

What is public, however, are all Reasons for Judgment rendered by the Court. These Reasons are made available on the internet and set aside for the media, who can decide whether a decision is newsworthy or not.

For a time, British Columbia judges who heard divorce and family law cases, opted to refer to the parties and their children by initials only, after numerous complaints of children
being teased and insulted because their fellow school mates and friends could read details of the family’s “dirty laundry” on the internet.

In California, where family law files are not protected from general public consumption, several recent cases have made news. These cases involve billionaires who believe the rules that apply to Joe Six-Pack, shouldn’t apply to them.

Henry Nicholas, Broadcom co-founder and Orange County billionaire, brought a court application requesting that his divorce file be sealed permanently to protect his children.

His request was granted by a judge who not only sealed the file, but did it in a private hearing and ordered that any record of the divorce file also be expunged. For good measure, he also sealed his order granting the relief sought. Unfortunately for Mr. Nicholas, another judge assumed this judge’s duties through a routine change in rota and judge # 2 was not happy with the order made.

Despite Mr. Nicholas’ argument that the new judge had no jurisdiction to reverse the sealing order, it was overturned. Last month California’s Court of Appeal agreed that the file would not be sealed.

One of the issues was that Los Angeles journalists scoured the file after the trial completed in 2008 and had already written scores of articles about the case and the children. The suggestion that it was Mr. Nicholas’ children who required protection was seen to be a ruse. The general consensus was that Mr. Nicholas wished to contain the dissemination of the trial evidence regarding his and his ex-wife’s dalliances with cocaine, ecstasy, meth and nitrous oxide.

The result couldn’t have been a big surprise for Mr. Nicholas and his legal team because in 2006, Ronald Burkle, the billionaire grocery magnate, lost his application to seal his divorce file. He too said that it was to protect his children.

Just before Burkle’s sealing case was heard, California lawmakers, quickly and quietly passed a bill that provided that financial information in a divorce case could not be disclosed. The Court of Appeal held that the new law was unconstitutional. It strains credulity to imagine that this bill would not have been passed, but for Ron Burkle.

I’m reminded of a quote from Buzzie Bavasi, a major league baseball executive who said “We live by the golden rule. Those who have the gold, make the rules.”

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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