Divorce ruling creates a 'cheat's charter'

Feuding couples who do not want their spouses' lawyers finding out how rich they are have won a landmark legal ruling.

The decision yesterday by a Court of Appeal will mean an end to detective work by estranged wives and husbands for evidence of hidden assets.

The court ruled that it was an invasion of privacy for documents or emails obtained by stealth to be admitted as evidence – a judgment promptly condemned by divorce lawyers as a "cheats' charter".

The ruling is the latest episode in a bitter court battle between Vivian Imerman, 53, former owner of the Del Monte fruit company, and his estranged wife, Lisa Tchenguiz, 43. The case has stretched to more than a dozen hearings and is estimated to have cost more than £5m.

They were married in 2001, but the marriage ended in 2008. She is suing him for £100m. In November, she won a court judgment allowing her to use in evidence 20,000 documents downloaded from a computer in the office Mr Imerman shared with her brothers, the property tycoons, Robert and Vincent Tchenguiz.

But Mr Imerman won a ruling that the brothers, two IT staff and a solicitor had no right to retain or use material downloaded without his knowledge. Three appeal court judges, headed by Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, the Master of the Rolls, ordered Ms Tchenguiz to hand the documents over to her ex-husband's solicitors, because keeping them "would give her access to material which was confidential to Mr Imerman and had been unlawfully taken from him by her brothers and supplied to her in circumstances where it is not the court or Mr Imerman but her brothers who selected the documents".

They said that there was "no real doubt" that Mr Imerman's rights of confidence had been breached.

Until this judgment, wives had been allowed produce in court documents obtained secretly, provided force was not used.