TV chef Marco Pierre White today won his appeal against a High Court ruling which halted his action against the leading divorce lawyers representing his estranged wife.
Last year, Mr Justice Eady struck out his case against law firm Withers LLP and partner Marcus Dearle, who have acted for Mati, whom the chef married in 2000 after seven years together and is the mother of three of his children.
Mr White, who sought damages for misuse of confidential or private information and wrongful interference with property, claimed that his wife, from whom he finally parted in January 2007, had taken 42 documents for use in the proceedings to resolve the financial issues between them.
Withers, which denied that Mrs White had intercepted any mail on their instructions, argued that the case should be stopped in its tracks because the Michelin-starred restaurateur had no valid claim and had brought the case to "hassle" his wife.
Today, Lord Justice Ward, sitting in the Court of Appeal with Lord Justice Sedley and Lord Justice Wilson, said that Mr Justice Eady was quite right to dismiss the claim relating to the misuse of confidential or private information.
And the case argued before the appeal court on interference with property was so wholly different from that before the High Court, that the judge could not be criticised at all for dealing with that summarily.
However, said Lord Justice Ward, he had been convinced that those claims could not be struck out and must proceed to trial.
He said that Mrs White began to remove documents to thwart her husband's alleged threats that he would frustrate her ability to obtain the provision to which she was entitled.
The allegations - which Mr White denied - were that he had told his wife that she would not get a penny from him were they ever to separate; that he would leave the country and she would never find him; that he would "pull the plug" on everything and that he owned nothing having sold it all for £1.
Lord Justice Ward said that the documents included a contract from P&O and a letter from Letty, Mr White's daughter by an earlier marriage, which he said he had never seen until the originals were produced by Withers.
The judge said that the letter from Letty was "a touching, almost heartbreaking, letter to her father expressing her love for him and her wish to see much more of him.
"It was a letter which desperately called for a speedy reply. It is alleged that this letter was not only intercepted but it was also withheld, thus denying Mr White the opportunity to respond to his daughter's cry for help.
"Mr Dearle, an experienced family lawyer, may be open to criticism for withholding it."
Lord Justice Ward said that Mr Dearle's evidence was that he advised Mrs White that she was only entitled to take copies of documents that she found in the matrimonial home provided she did not break into any of Mr White's property to obtain access.
He added that Mr Dearle might legitimately be asked what advice, if any, he gave prior to or at least on receipt of documents which may have come in on different occasions between July 2006 and December 2007.
There seemed to be a case for the defendants to answer, and Mr White's sworn assertion that his wife told him that she had been told to take his documents could not be summarily dismissed.
"The claimant may well not succeed in establishing that case on the balance of probabilities but that is a far cry from shutting him out from his right to a fair trial of the issue."
The judge said that the law firm argued that the claim was "not worth the candle" and should be stopped, while Mr White's lawyers argued that aggravated damages were recoverable.
He commented: "It must always be remembered that solicitors are officers of the court and if they are shown to have done wrong they should face the judgment of the court.
"It is not conducive to the administration of justice that such claims are simply swept under the carpet. It is in the public interest that the bounds of proper conduct be clarified.
"The interception and retention of Letty's letter, more than the P&O contract, leaves me with such an uncomfortable feeling that for my part I would be reluctant to shut out the claimant and deny him his day in court.
"Thus I am not persuaded that this claim has been shown to be an abuse of the process."
Lord Justice Sedley said: "I recognise that the desire for vengeance on the lawyers acting for an estranged spouse is as common as it is irrational. The courts are right to be wary about letting such expeditions through their doors.
"But if, among these, one turns out to be legally viable, the claimant's motive cannot shut the court's door; and this, I agree, is such a case."
Lord Justice Wilson noted that Mr White had admitted that he had told Mr Dearle in a telephone conversation: "I hope you and your family rot in hell because that is where you've sent mine", and had asserted that the law firm "manipulated" his wife.
He said that the wider context was that, after Mr White claimed in July 2007 that his assets were only £94,000 and his income nil, there was a series of hard-fought applications in the divorce proceedings about financial issues and the children.
Agreeing "reluctantly" that it would go too far to uphold the strike-out, he commented:
"These factors combine to create a powerful case that the present civil action represents satellite litigation of an unwholesome kind, not genuinely founded on damage suffered but, rather, designed both to destabilise prosecution of the wife's claims against the claimant and to secure vengeance for perceived wrongs perpetrated by the defendants in providing the wife with the expertise with which energetically to challenge his assertion that in effect he had no money with which to maintain her."
Withers said later: "The Court of Appeal judges, who each took a slightly different approach to this matter, have simply decided that this complex issue has to be argued fully in court, rather than determined on an expedited basis.
"We have always maintained that any allegations made by Marco Pierre White against Marcus Dearle and Withers are completely unfounded.
"But as Lord Justice Sedley commented, 'the desire for vengeance on the lawyers acting for an estranged spouse is as common as it is irrational'.
"It will be helpful to family law practitioners and their clients to have the whole issue of disclosure of documents in divorce proceedings considered more fully.
"Now that cases are often determined by reference to a percentage of wealth, there may be an incentive to conceal that wealth, and the courts need to review what can (and cannot) be done by, and on behalf of, the financially weaker party to protect her/his position."Reuse content