'Serious flaw' in legal system which allows costs of €500k plus in marital dispute cases: Judge

A High Court judge has said there is a "serious flaw" in our legal system when it permits more than €500,000 legal fees to be correctly charged for a woman’s judicial separation.

Mr Justice Michael Twomey also noted that the costs exclude the costs of a separate divorce proceeding which is yet to be heard.

The judge went on to suggest that what is concerning is that, in "highly personal and acrimonious" family law disputes, "where children and loving relationships are pulled asunder", litigants are not protected from "their own unreasonableness", to prevent them incurring inordinate legal fees.

The woman’s lawyers had sought €635,000 in fees, she did not seek to have them reduced, and a High Court Taxing Master held €508,000 of that was properly charged, he said.

Her husband’s legal costs for the separation were €127,000 and the High Court had held he had a legitimate interest in trying to ensure her costs were minimised.

The judge noted Mr Justice John MacMenamin, who granted the separation order in 2010, had described the woman as "not financially minded", stressing that observation was not made in a critical sense but was illustrated by her apparently having no specific recollecton of substantial financial transactions to which she was a party.

Mr Justice Twomey said he could not say whether €508,000 for one party’s costs in a judcial separation was "most unusual".

Another judge had rejected the husband’s claim the €508,000 should be further cut and held the husband made serious unsupported allegations against the woman’s solicitor for costs also "flatly contradicted" by the woman.

As matters stand, €508,000 has been properly charged in legal fees for the woman, he said. This was "an inordinate amount" of money to pay for a daily occurrence here, court-ordered marriage break-ups.

A €508,000 fee would involve 1,693 hours work based on the €300 per hour used by the Taxing Master in his review. Not all fees were charged on a time basis.

If such fees were incurred by the other party, it would cost more than €1m legal fees for a couple to separate.

Apart from the fact if couples knew such costs could be incurred, they might make a lot more effort to mediate, and on the basis the charges were valdily incurred, there is a "serious flaw" in a legal system permitting and facilitating such fees, and such amount of time, be incurred in a separation.

England and Wales have considered whether certain trials there should be limited to two days with costs capped at Stg£50,000, he observed.

While the woman’s lawyers said the Taxing Master "only" cut the bill by €127,000, with the bill for the solicitors themselves cut by €55,000, a €127,000 reduction was not something insignificant.

The costs exclude the separate costs of divorce proceedings initiated by the husband. The divorce case, in which the woman is seeking proper provision and wants a particular trust unwound, has yet to be heard.

The woman, the judge noted, paid the full €635,000 sum sought by her lawyers after another judge ordered she could pay €200,000 pending taxation. Why and how the €635,000 was paid despite her having been described as "not financially minded" and her saying she could not afford to pay for a house and had "gasped with horror" when she saw the bill need to be clarified.

There appeared to have been unreasonable conduct by both parties in the separation, he said. There were issues concerning the fees incurred by the woman and the man’s delay providing financial information added to the length and costs of the proceedings.

He made the comments in a judgment dealing with pre-divorce trial applications by the husband seeking various documents and recordings relating to her costs.

While the man raised issues of "prima facie concern" regarding the level and payment of the wife’s legal fees for the separation, the court could not, at this stage of the proceedings, make any findings of fact on those issues, the judge said.

The four issues of concern to the court were: the level of legal costs for a marriage break up; the fact the woman paid €635,000 to her lawyers after another judge ordered she could pay €200,000 pending review; ) the payment of €36,656 accountants fees by the woman via her solicitor’s client account; and her own role in taxation of her legal costs.

The judge directed the woman’s solicitor to swear an affidavit addressing those concerns. He refused other orders permitting the husband get various documents or recordings of certain hearings before the family law court or Taxing Master, saying those were not necessary to establish how much the woman had spent on legal and associated fees.


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