In a deservedly condescending judgment from the English High Court, Family Division, one can feel the frustration of Mr. Justice Holman as he describes the “titanic” litigation between Sandra Seagrove and Lawrence Sullivan, the unmarried parents of three children, ages 23, 20, and 10 years old, who looked to him to sort out the single issue of the division of the home they shared during their 20-year common-law relationship.
Noting that the couple spent only a few days to litigate parenting issues, Justice Holman pointedly observes that Ms. Seagrove has expended $800,000 and Mr. Sullivan over $500,000 in legal fees on a piece of property that is worth less than a $1 million dollars, amounting to a legal conundrum worth half of that.
But Judge Holman identifies another problem and that is counsels’ inability to follow the Rules of Court, rules enacted to control the needless expansion of family litigation, to ensure that cases are managed proportionately to their value to the litigants.
He quotes the Rule that provides that counsel may only submit 350 pages of documents, limited to one A4 size ring binder or one lever arch file, and the Rule that limits the number of case authorities to ten, unless the scale of the proceeding warrants it.
To his dismay, both sets of counsel, a senior and junior for each party, have paid no attention to the established practice directions or the recent decision of Mr. Justice Mostyn on document production, and the maximum number of cases to be relied on. Justice Holman says:
“Having referred to the completely disproportionate costs that have been incurred, I turn now to the documentation which underlines the scale and intensity of this dispute.
There were delivered to the court yesterday, or the day before, five large lever arch bundles of documents, which comprise over 2,000 pages, inclusive of the respective skeleton arguments, which are each just under 25 pages.
There were also delivered to the court two large bundles and one more slender bundle containing no less than 32 authorities. As if that were not bad enough (as I will later describe), I was, frankly, flabbergasted this morning when the solicitors arrived at the court at about 10.10 am with another large cardboard box containing an additional five large lever arch files of additional documents (these are the ones with lavender coloured card on their spines).
I have been told that those additional five bundles contain around a further 1,500 pages of documents. So, in aggregate, at the outset of this hearing, these parties are expecting consideration of all or part of 3,500 pages of documents as well as all or part of the 32 authorities. This needs to be considered within the framework that rule makers and the most senior judiciary have endeavoured to establish in order to ensure the proportionality of litigation.”
Mr. Justice Holman next entertains counsels’ submissions justifying their wholesale disregard of the Rules of Court, dismissing them in short shrift, and reminding counsel that courts cost money to run, and that if they wish to overindulge they are best to go the route of arbitration!
A slap in the face indeed, as it is well-known that one of the benefits of arbitration is reduced time, paper and costs!
The judge’s remedy? An adjournment to the next day and the following order:
“Except for the two skeleton arguments and the chronology, every single piece of paper that has so far been lodged will be taken away from this courtroom now. All the bundles of authorities will be taken away from this courtroom now.”
The postscript to the reported judgment of Seagrove v. Sullivan 2014 EWHC 4110 is:
“[NOTE: On the following morning the parties announced that they had reached a comprehensive settlement; and the judge was invited to make, and did make, a “Tomlin order” in which their detailed agreement is contained in a confidential schedule.]”
Why does a judge need to embarrass and humiliate counsel, including two Queen’s Counsel, to ensure that time and money is not frivolously wasted, and how unhappy were the parties when they received the judge’s indictment of their high-priced counsel?