Court rejects contempt bid over solicitor’s witness statement error

Smith: Application did not begin to get off the ground

The High Court has rejected an application to begin contempt proceedings against a solicitor over what it said was a simple error in a witness statement.

Mrs Justice Joanna Smith said there was no evidence to show Daniel Curnock had acted deliberately, while the action may have been brought simply to “harass” him.

In the original trial, the court rejected claimant Louise Reeves’ bid to uphold the validity of her late father’s 2014 will, which represented a huge change from one made in 2012 to her benefit. Mr Curnock drafted both of them. The estate was worth £100m.

Mr Justice Michael Green was excoriating in his assessment of Mr Curnock, describing the way he went about preparing the £100m will to be “reckless and quite possibly dishonest”.

He found the solicitor had not told the truth to the court about his relationship with Ms Reeves, saying the nature and extent of their dealings before the will was executed on 7 January 2014 as “a crucial issue at the heart of this case”.

Both initially said they had not met prior to that, but emails then came to light that showed communications between them and that they had met on 11 December 2013 when Mr Curnock attended the deceased’s offices for a meeting.

They claimed not to recall this because it was only fleeting and had happened several years before making the statements.

But given the extent of communications between the two – such as 17 text messages from Ms Reeves to Mr Curnock on 23 December 2013 – Green J did not accept that they had forgotten and said they had “deliberately sought to conceal the full extent of their interactions in relation to the preparation of the 2014 will”.

The defendants to the original action sought permission to bring contempt proceedings against both Ms Reeves and Mr Curnock for false statements; in relation to the solicitor, it was for his witness statement that said he had not met Ms Reeves prior to executing the will.

Mrs Justice Joanna Smith stressed that Mr Curnock was not a party to the original case and so it would not be “appropriate” to have regard to Green J’s findings in determining whether there should be committal proceedings.

She said: “The evidence against the defendants describes the judgment as ‘background’ and makes it clear that the applications are made by reference to the documents relied upon in those applications and not on anything said by the judge.”

Smith J added that there were no allegation of fraud or conspiracy against either defendant – nor did Green J make “direct findings” of fraud or collusion against them. Both accepted that their statements on meeting before the execution were false, but said they were innocently made.

She found the claimants had not proved Mr Curnock knew either his statement was false or that it was likely to interfere with the course of justice.

The case “does not begin to get off the ground”, she went on. “Just as the claimants’ case against Louise seems to be heavily premised upon an assumption of nefarious activity, so the same applies here.

“Yet, absent the judgment and absent any allegation of collusion, there is absolutely no basis whatever to determine that the only possible inference from the existence of the emails and the texts is that Mr Curnock intended to conceal the fact of the 11 December 2013 meeting with Louise or was reckless about that meeting.

“His statement was made many years after the meeting, without access to key documents and in circumstances where his professional relationship with Louise had continued after the 2014 will, thereby increasing the risk of confusion over precise dates.”

There was also no evidence that, when making the statement, Mr Curnock “had any clear understanding of the nature of the issues in the proceedings”.

He corrected the statement after realising it was false and the court “was not in any way misled”, the judge held.

His cross-examination at the trial had led Green J to make “highly uncomfortable and professionally embarrassing findings against Mr Curnock”.

Smith J went on: “In all the circumstances (and even assuming a strong prima facie case) I cannot see that it is in the public interest for a substantive hearing to take place, with all of the expense and use of resources that would involve.

“Mr Curnock’s professional reputation has already been dragged through the mud and there is no real public interest in putting Mr Curnock through the further ordeal and disruption of a substantive hearing.”

Also refusing permission to proceed against Ms Reeves, the judge said there was “a risk that this application is brought out of a vindictive desire to punish Louise for her pursuit of the proceedings”. Similarly, there was a risk that the application had been made “purely as a means of harassing Mr Curnock”.

In a statement, Mr Curnock said he was “delighted” with the ruling, recounting how, since the original judgment, “I have been the subject of countless negative stories in the press, which has obviously caused me and my family a lot of pain and anguish”.

He continued: “Throughout that time, I have kept my head down and continued to work hard to meet the needs of my clients. It is important to note I was not a party to those original proceedings, so had no access to documents and statements, was unrepresented, and had no right of appeal against Mr Justice Green’s findings against me.

“I have always firmly denied any allegations of contempt of court, but I have now been allowed an opportunity to put some of the facts that I could not present to Mr Justice Green to a court, and I am pleased to have been vindicated by the judgment.

“I am grateful to my current firm, Bright & Sons, for their continued support throughout this ordeal.”

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