People often say that there are no winners in family law. However in a recent case, it could be said that, rather unusually, endangered tigers were the winners. Or, to be more specific, a charity striving to preserve and conserve the critically endangered Chinese tiger could be said to have been the winner.
The case is rather unusual, even for a divorce case where all circumstances tend to be unique. In addition to the husband and the wife, the parties to the litigation included charities set up by the couple to breed Chinese tigers and to reintroduce them to their native habitat. (The Chinese tiger is a sub-species which is extinct in the wild due to habitat loss.)
For eleven years the couple had worked tirelessly on a joint venture known as Save China’s Tigers, which was registered with the Charity Commission in the UK. The wife is an expert in the field of tiger conservation, and the husband is vastly experienced in complicated international finance and financial structures. Together they ran Save China’s Tigers in the UK, as well as a trust also dedicated to the conservation project known as China Tigers South Africa Trust, which was based in Mauritius. The charities run a breeding and reintroduction to the wild project. By the time the case got to court, the trust assets were around £25m, including land in South Africa used for the breeding and re-wilding programme, and land in China.
After the couple separated the wife was removed as a director of the UK-based charity. At the time of separation, the wife was entirely focused on preserving the assets in the charitable trusts for the benefit of the tigers, not for herself or the husband. However it seems that as time passed she changed her position, to the extent that she wanted to undo the terms of the South Africa Trust, claiming that one of its purposes was to provide for her and the husband. In legal terms, she was claiming it was a nuptial trust which the court could vary so as to provide her with a settlement. The claim was made because, generally speaking, trusts are beyond the reach of the family courts, but where the trust has a nuptial character the courts can use the assets held within it to satisfy the needs of the people involved. To have a nuptial character, the trust must be for the benefit of one or both of the (formerly) married couple and have been created because of, or with reference to, the marriage.
In order to try to convince the court that the trusts were nuptial and so could be varied, the wife claimed that trust monies had been used to buy the couple’s home, and had paid bills for their property, funded a lavish lifestyle for them (including fine wine and fine dining) as well as paying sums of money directly to the husband.
The case spent a whopping 25 days being argued in court. At the end of this, the judge, Sir Paul Coleridge, summed up his view of the wife as “a very intelligent person but she has become blinded by her desire for revenge and this has led her to fabricate where she thinks it will assist her case.” Conversely the judge preferred to rely on the husband’s evidence.
He decided that there was no evidence whatsoever that the trust had ever been used to support the parties, and so was not nuptial. It could not be varied to carve out a pot of money for the wife. In fact, the judge was damning in his summary of the wife’s case, which he described as an “invention”.
The trust assets always had been and are only used for the Chinese tigers. As such they do not amount to a post-nuptial settlement which the court can invade. Nor are they assets belonging to the husband, from which he could be ordered to make a payment to the wife.
This hearing was in fact only a preliminary hearing to establish the nature of the trusts which held the assets, and whether they amounted to assets available to the parties. Having decided that they were not, the litigation will continue (unless the couple settle the case) to determine what should be sorted out financially between the couple, excluding the tiger charity funds.
So the tigers have come out of this tussle pretty well. The charity and the trusts which are doing so much good work to conserve the few remaining Chinese tigers and reintroduce them to the wild are not about to have their assets used to fund a divorce settlement. As a well-known striped cat used to say about a certain sugared breakfast cereal: “gggrrreeeaaatttt”!
Not so great, however, that the 25 days in court simply got these former spouses past an initial hurdle. The real issues are yet to be decided, unless they can find a way to negotiate through their dispute.
If you would like to get in touch with us to make an appointment to talk about trusts, settlements or any other aspect of family law, please give us a call on 01223 443333.