Court  |  Family law

The consequences of lying to the court

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Walker Family Law
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The consequences of lying to the court

As everyone knows, anyone involved in court proceedings should tell the court “nothing but the truth”.  This applies not just to giving oral evidence at court hearings, but to every dealing with the court, including in written statements filed with the court, and complying with court orders.

But sadly many people who have been involved in family court proceedings will tell of a different experience: of their former spouse or partner blatantly lying to the court. This occurs in all types of family court proceedings, but perhaps most often in financial remedy proceedings on divorce.

So why do people lie, and what are the consequences of lying to the court? These questions were addressed in a remarkable Family Court judgment published last week.

Terrible litigation

The judgment was handed down by Mr Justice Mostyn in a case concerning a wife’s application for financial provision from the husband. We do not need to go into the details of the application here, but a little background to the history of the case is relevant.

The parties separated in 2012 and the wife commenced divorce proceedings in the following year. Since then, the parties have been engaged in almost continuous litigation, both in England, where the wife lives, and in Scotland, where the husband lives.

The litigation has been fuelled by “exceptionally strong mutual antipathy” and extremely hard-fought on both sides – at one point a dispute in the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

As Mostyn J described: “This has been a case where love has to hatred turned to an extraordinary degree.” The husband, he said, “has accused the wife of being a fraudster, a fantasist and generally useless.” Meanwhile: “The wife, with some justification, has accused the husband of being dishonest, manipulative, vindictive and bullying. But she is not beyond criticism herself. She has conducted her pursuit of the husband in this litigation in a completely disproportionate manner”.

In 2016 a maintenance order was made, requiring the husband to pay maintenance to the wife. The husband not paid a penny under the order.

Mostyn J summed up the history with this: “The result of this terrible litigation … is that both parties are now financially ruined, and, I suspect, psychologically damaged.”

Another illustration, if one were needed, of the consequences of failing to resolve family disputes by agreement.

So to the issue of lying.

Adverse inferences

The husband was ordered by the court to produce his recent bank statements at the hearing, but he did not produce even one. His explanation, said Mostyn J, was “absurd”: “He claimed that he was acting in the public benefit in the context of the pandemic by not going to his bank in person. He had no answer to my question why he did not at any point apply to the court to be relieved from the disclosure obligation on the ground that it was impossible to comply with.”

This incident, said Mostyn J, was “illustrative of a general syndrome on the part of the husband of defiance, offensiveness, non-cooperation and truculence.”

The husband’s refusal to provide bank statements was, said Mostyn J, “analogous to telling lies to the court.” He went on with this important explanation:

“Well-established authority teaches us that lies to the court can lead to a number of conclusions. First, and obviously, lies to the court may lead to the inference that something highly material, and highly adverse, to the witness is being obscured. But other conclusions may be drawn. Sometimes witnesses unwisely lie in order to bolster a true case. This is hardly a surprising phenomenon. Sometimes witnesses lie in order to conceal shameful, but irrelevant, behaviour. Sometimes witnesses lie simply in order to be difficult. The forensic process is so exacting, and often (as in this case) so prolonged, that it drives people, perhaps already so disposed, to behave unreasonably, combatively, and truculently. This is an especially common phenomenon in divorce litigation where personal relations will have already plunged to new depths.”

In this instance Mostyn J concluded that the husband’s motive for his “deplorable conduct” was not to hide the existence of funds in his bank, but “simply in order to needle his wife and those advising her.”

Whilst it may appear that the husband “got away” with his conduct (although antagonising a judge in this way is certainly not to be recommended), the case is a warning that, amongst other possible consequences (including costs consequences or even perjury) lying to the court can mean that the court believes that you have something to hide, in which case the court may (for example) infer you have certain assets, even when you do not.

The message is very simple: do not lie to the court – doing so risks serious consequences.