All kinds of allegations arise in the course of a divorce. But if your ex suggests you aren’t being straight about the assets you own, they need to be very sure of their ground.

Both sides in a divorce must be completely transparent about their financial situation. This means making full disclosure of assets in Form E. The ‘full and frank disclosure’ approach should also discourage the parties from any attempt to reduce their wealth artificially.

Of course the courts are alert to the possibility that assets might be hidden or diminished by one spouse in the course of financial proceedings, and they have a range of investigatory tools at their disposal to prevent such behaviour. Judges may also revisit settlements reached on the basis of inaccurate or fraudulent information.

Are Accusations About Your Finances Fair?

Because of the sanctions available to the courts, raising doubt in the mind of a judge about the veracity of the other side’s financial disclosure is a powerful tool in divorce litigation. The availability of injunctions and other remedies can put intense pressure on a spouse who is not complying with the disclosure requirements to provide clarity about his or her real financial worth.

A note of caution however. Allegations that your ex is concealing property or acting fraudulently should never be made lightly. As the Crowther case we discuss below shows, if you make allegations of non-disclosure you must be ready to follow them through. If accusations are shown to be untrue or made without any real basis in fact, the repercussions can be significant.

Crowther v Crowther

Crowther v Crowther was a 2020 highly contested divorce case heard in the High Court. It involving multi-million pound assets, including a ship charter business based in Gibraltar. Legal proceedings covered a wide range of issues aside from the couple’s divorce, and there were multiple court hearings. For our purposes the aspect of Crowther that’s of most interest concerned the wife’s allegations that Mr. Crowther was being untruthful about his financial status.

Allegations of a spouse’s financial fraud

Mrs. Crowther suggested that her husband and others involved in the family shipping business as well as the legal entities that held the title to the vessels were engaged in a conspiracy to defraud – first against the HMRC and subsequently against herself in the course of the matrimonial proceedings.

Clearly if these allegations were proven Mr. Crowther could face legal consequences beyond the jurisdiction of the family courts.

It’s interesting to note that at the outset Mrs Crowther allegations were very clear. Her case was that her husband and another party to the proceedings were:

  • Transferring assets away from Mr. Crowther
  • Terminating contracts with companies controlled by Mr. Crowther
  • Moving those contracts to new companies so that Mr. Crowther lost any financial benefit

Mrs Crowther argued that unless there was a freezing order placed over the assets (valued at between £7 and £10 million) they would be hidden and moved offshore so that she would be unable to access them as part of any financial award in her divorce. Although Mr. Crowther strongly denied all allegations, the freezing order was granted. (In what was a highly complex case the order was later lifted and then reinstated but these aspects of the case need not distract us.)

In preparation for the trial of the proceedings in which Mrs Crowther had alleged fraud the court wanted to clarify certain issues, including the beneficial ownership of the ships. Ahead of this preliminary hearing Mrs Crowther was asked to spell out to the court the detail of her allegations, including providing details of the nature of any conspiracy, including dates, identities of conspirators and the nature of any loss.

When A Spouse Withdraws Allegations

A week before the court was to hear these issues Mrs Crowther reached a settlement deal with all the parties she had brought claims against – except her husband. (Remember Mrs Crowther had involved business partners and the companies who appeared to hold legal title to the vessels in her case). Even though Mr. Crowther was not involved in the settlement it was plain that as a result of the deal Mrs Crowther would have little choice but to drop her allegations of fraud against her husband.

So where did this leave Mr Crowther?

His first reaction was to seek to have his costs paid by Mrs Crowther. After all,  he had been subjected to damaging allegations, which were widely publicised, including suggestions of criminal conspiracy. These were then suddenly dropped – without any explanation. As the judge noted, Mr. Crowther had also been put to enormous expense and ‘massive personal inconvenience’. Additionally, because Mrs Crowther had decided not to pursue the allegations, Mr. Crowther would have no opportunity to clear his name.

His application for costs was successful – initially a payment on account of £80,000. (Mrs Crowther had spent £900,000 in legal fees at the time of this decision on costs). In reaching this decision on costs in favour of Mr. Crowther the judge mentioned the ‘extraordinary’ way Mrs Crowther had approached the case. And while Mr Crowther’s conduct had not been blameless it had to be remembered that he was reacting to serious fraud allegations that his wife ultimately dropped.

Comment

We’ve gone into the Crowther case in some detail. And while at the end of the day it may seem to have been an argument purely about who should pay legal costs, there’s a valuable lesson. Yes, the courts have a wide discretion to make property adjustment orders where they find that a spouse has transferred assets to avoid them being taken into account. But Crowther is a clear demonstration of the dangers inherent in making any unsubstantiated allegations about hiding assets or any other aspect of your spouse’s financial conduct. Mrs. Crowther’s allegations may have had substance – we’ll never know. And as we have mentioned her husband vehemently denied them. But the fact that she was not prepared to stand over them in court (whether this was because of tactical or other considerations) resulted in her facing a significant financial penalty and string judicial criticism.

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