In what is believed to be the largest award in financial remedy proceedings in the UK, the former wife of an oil and gas trader has been awarded £453 Million pounds by the High Court in the case of AAZ v BBZ* . The parties have not been named, but the wife is known to be Eastern European and 44 years old, and the husband is from the Caucuses and 66 years old. The case went before Mr Justice Haddon-Cave in late 2016, but details of the case have only recently emerged.
The case involved assets estimated by the wife to total over one billion pounds and the amount awarded to her represented 41.5% of the total assets. As would be expected in such a case, the court had to navigate a number of complicated and contentious issues. The assets included trusts and international holding companies with complex structures. The husband claimed these were discretionary trusts, whilst the wife disputed this interpretation. She claimed that these assets were wholly the husband’s resources. The importance of these issues is that whether or not the assets were resources available to the husband could have a profound impact on the calculation of the matrimonial ‘pot’ of assets.
Another disputed issue was the date of separation of the parties. The wife claimed that the marriage broke down in 2014, whilst the husband contended that the marriage ended in 1999, or 2004 at the latest. This should seem to the outside observer a relatively straightforward issue to resolve, but determining the date of separation required the court to review a range of documentary evidence and draw inferences from the husband’s and wife’s actions over a period of over ten years. The date of separation was a significant issue as the husband realised a substantial sum from the sale of shares in a Russian company in 2012, and the court needed to determine whether this should be included in the matrimonial assets.
This case demonstrates why many spouses of high net worth individuals seek to commence proceedings in England and Wales. The power of the court to award significant sums to the financially weaker party when using the provisions of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 means that England and Wales is likely to remain a favoured forum for those cases with an international dimension and significant assets when the jurisdiction is available. It also emphasises the importance of taking early and swift legal advice on jurisdiction where it is likely to be an issue. Taking the first steps in divorce proceedings where there are different jurisdictions available can be pivotal in deciding where a case is heard.
Thomas Brownrigg (Solicitor)
Edward Nicklin (Paralegal)
* EWHC 3234 (Fam) – http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/3234.html