Woman fails in contempt bid over application to debar her solicitors

Knowles: Committal not in the public interest

A woman has failed in her bid to bring contempt proceedings against her ex-husband and his business associate, who she claimed conspired in an attempt to stop her instructing certain solicitors.

Mrs Justice Knowles held that the case put forward by Alvina Collardeau was “weak and evidentially flawed”, and in any case she was probably not “a proper person” to bring the proceedings.

Ms Collardeau was married to US billionaire Michael Fuchs and in 2022 was awarded £37m under a pre-nuptial agreement and more by way of child support.

She was initially represented by Withers and then Payne Hicks Beach. Mr Fuchs was represented by Stewarts during the proceedings but, in April 2022, he investigated alternatives, one of which was London firm Sears Tooth.

William Harrison, the head of Mr Fuchs’ family office, sent an email to the firm early on 22 April 2022 to seek an exploratory meeting.

Mr Fuchs and Mr Harrison asserted that the firm’s head, Raymond Tooth, rang Mr Harrison later that day, during which Mr Harrison patched the husband into the call, which lasted about 40 minutes in all.

Two days later, Mr Tooth’s secretary emailed Mr Harrison with a note from Mr Tooth apologising for not responding on 22 April and offering another time to speak. A few days later, Mr Fuchs instructed Harbottle & Lewis.

In March 2023, Sears Tooth informed Harbottle that it had been instructed by Ms Collardeau. The response pointed out that Mr Fuchs had had a meeting with Mr Tooth, “during which his case in respect of both finance and children proceedings was discussed in a substantive way”.

Mr Tooth rejected this, saying he had neither met nor spoken to Mr Fuchs.

In June, Mr Fuchs issued an application seeking to debar Sears Tooth from acting. In a witness statement, Mr Tooth “asserted his belief that the statements made by the husband and Mr Harrison were knowingly fabricated and thus, that the debarring application was fraudulent”.

Mr Fuchs decided not to pursue the application – saying he did not want to spend more money on the issue – but Ms Collardeau said she would only agree to him withdrawing it on certain conditions.

Mr Fuchs did not accept one of them – a requirement for a recital in the consent order that ‘the applicant accepts that he never should have made the application in the first place’ – and so Ms Collardeau issued her application for permission to bring committal proceedings.

Last September, Mrs Justice Arbuthnot gave permission for Mr Fuchs to withdraw his application.

Knowles J said “Mr Tooth’s recollection may be questioned on the basis that it would be surprising if he could recall a telephone conversation which had taken place over a year before the wife instructed him”.

The solicitor’s assertion that he would have made an attendance note was “apparently inconsistent with his recorded practices” as detailed in a 2017 case, in which “Mr Tooth was said to take a short note or would write a few illegible keywords”.

She continued: “The case of ZS v FS may be persuasive in combination with other matters that Mr Tooth’s evidence of his recollection may also be fallible in this particular case.”

The evidence of Mr Tooth’s phone records, which did not show a call with Mr Harrison, was not presented in “a permissible form”, the judge said, and even then it was “equally possible” that Mr Tooth used another handset.

Further, there was no evidence of the background to the email sent by Mr Tooth’s secretary. There were other possible reasons why it did not reference the call, such as that it was sent without consulting with Mr Tooth or he had told her to send it before the conversation took place.

Knowles J said it was “difficult to perceive how the wife can demonstrate that the inferences she seeks to rely on are the only inferences which can reasonably be drawn from either the 24 April email or from Mr Tooth’s phone records”.

The final part of Ms Collardeau’s case was that Mr Tooth could not have made a telephone call on 22 April 2022 because he was in an all-day hearing, but there was no evidence to support this, such as the time it concluded.

Ms Collardeau did not serve evidence refuting the evidence of Mr Fuchs’ executive assistant corroborating the call either, the judge observed.

“The wife’s case is that the husband and Mr Harrison conspired to produce false statements to prevent her instructing Mr Tooth and thereby to assert the husband’s control over her during the litigation. That is an allegation of great gravity.”

She suggested that, by April 2023, when the substance of the litigation was over, “the motivation to exercise control over the wife had little tangible benefit for the husband”. Rather, it was his “perception” that his confidence had been breached which led him to issue his application.

The judge held: “In the light of the above analysis, I have concluded that the wife’s prima facie case is weak and evidentially flawed.”

Turning to the wider public interest, Knowles J expressed “grave reservations that the wife is a proper person to bring committal proceedings against the husband and Mr Harrison” as it was clear her “key motivation” was show the court that it could not rely on a statement of truth from Mr Fuchs or Mr Harrison.

This “betrayed a motive unconnected to the public interest in preventing interference with the administration of justice”.

The recital Ms Collardeau sought “seemed to me more of a weapon with which to beat the husband in any future litigation. It was unnecessary and reliance placed on it in any future litigation would likely have generated endless and sterile submissions about its meaning and weight”.

Finally, an assessment of proportionality “does not favour the wife”, the judge said, with around £500,000 already spent on the issue, while court time could be better spent on other business, “such as protecting children or vulnerable adults”.

Knowles J refused permission to bring committal proceedings, declaring it “simply not in the public interest to do so”.

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