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Darling, where did you put the Mercs?

There is not much about the law or practice of family law which is straightforward – each case is as unique as the people involved in it. Some go smoothly and with agreement, others are considerably more bruising in their course of resolution. And within all cases there are of course flashpoints and difficulties to be negotiated.

One area where we often find difficulties arising is that of personal possessions, or more formally chattels (which includes the contents of your home, cars, pets, jewellery and the like). We have written about them here. When a couple separates, their possessions need to be divided fairly as part of the overall arrangements. We find that this can often be one of the hardest parts of the process due to them having both an emotional and financial value. Generally the courts are not interested in how personal possessions are split, save for those which have a significant value which ought properly to be accounted for. However it is worth being aware that the courts can and do make orders in relation to chattels when required.

A second area of difficulty can be enforcing the court order, where one party refuses to play ball. There are various methods by which orders can be enforced, and breach of an order can amount to the criminal offence of contempt of court, for which the punishment is a (short) period of imprisonment. You may remember the long-running saga of Scot and Michelle Young’s divorce where he was imprisoned for contempt of court having failed to comply with several court orders to disclose the whereabouts of his finances. Enforcement proceedings in the courts can be expensive and often unsatisfactory.

The problems of enforcement of court orders and the vexed issue of personal belongings came together in the recent decision in the case of Hope v Krejci. The litigation between this former couple has been going on for some years, and has been characterised by the evasive and unhelpful approach of the husband, described by one judge as “truly abysmal” and “highly unsatisfactory”. It is a pretty complex set of proceedings, to which we cannot do justice in a short blog, but there was an interesting aspect relating to both chattels and enforcement.

Back in 2011 at the end of their first round of litigation, the judge hearing the case ordered the husband (Libor Krejci) to pay to the wife (Gillian Hope) a lump sum of £268,000 and a contribution to her legal costs of £100,000. The husband failed to pay anything towards the award and instead mounted various unsuccessful appeals. As a result of his failure to pay, Ms Hope had to apply to enforce the original order, and as part of that asked the court to vary the husband’s family trust (of which he was a beneficiary) in order to pay her the sums owing. The court exercised its powers to vary the trust just enough to meet the husband’s obligations under the original order. It also ordered that three vehicles (two Mercedes cars, one with a personalised number plate, and a Harley Davidson motorcycle) owned by the trust should become the wife’s sole property in partial fulfilment of the sums owing to her. They were chosen as they were, at the time, the only assets of the husband physically in this country.

To no-one’s surprise the husband, and the trust, failed to transfer the Mercs or the Harley to the wife, so she applied to have the husband committed to prison for contempt. The husband claimed to have taken the Harley to Odessa on the Black Sea and given it to his nephew, claimed that one of the Mercedes was now in the possession of a professional tennis player in the Czech Republic, and that the other had unfortunately blown up somewhere in rural Germany. As such none were within the jurisdiction and could not be transferred.

The judge was nonplussed with his stories, and was clear in his view that that the husband had utterly failed in his obligations to transfer, or at least try his best to transfer, these assets to the wife. He therefore sentenced the husband to two months in prison, and suspended the sentence for six weeks to allow the husband to pay an amount equivalent to the value of the vehicles to the wife. If he fails to do that he will spend some time at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

This case stands as a reminder both that the courts are getting tougher with those who flout their orders, and that chattels can be transferred by the courts both as part of an order, or to enforce an order.

As ever, if you would like to make an appointment with us to discuss any aspect of family law, please call us on 01223 4443333.


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