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15 December 2014

Judge issues ultimatum after ‘absurd’ £1.3m family dispute

A judge has taken the unusual step of removing most case documents from court and giving partners a final ultimatum to settle their separation dispute, reports the Law Society Gazette.

Sandra Seagrove and Lawrence Sullivan had already spent £1.3m between them in a battle over rights to see their son and over a property with a net value of £1m.

Ahead of a proposed eight-day trial, their lawyers submitted 3,500 pages of documents from 32 authorities for consideration.

The day before a High Court hearing on Tuesday, five lever-arch bundles of documents arrived containing more than 2,000 pages, including 25-page skeleton arguments.

Mr Justice Holman said he was ‘frankly flabbergasted’ when solicitors arrived at court with a further five bundles on the day of the trial.

Holman said he was ‘determined’ not to allow the case to go to a trial which he estimated would take 10, rather than the allocated eight, days, and told both parties to return to court the next morning.

Except for the two skeleton arguments and chronology, he ordered every single piece of paper lodged up until then to be taken away from the courtroom.

If the parties had not reached a settlement by their return, they would be limited to bring one bundle and 150 pages of their choosing from no more than five authorities.

Holman said: ‘Others might use other words of description, but as this is a judgment in a courtroom, I will merely say that the costs, and also the scale and intensity of this litigation, have been, and are, completely disproportionate.’

In the event, the parties announced the following morning they had reached a comprehensive settlement.

The judge said both parties had made wholesale breaches of practice directions on the material brought to court and said the only effective sanction was to take it all away.

‘There is no more room at all for courts being resigned or fatalistic when the sort of thing that has happened in this case happens again.’

On the issue of legal costs, the court heard that Seagrove and Sullivan spent £800,000 and £506,000 respectively after the breakdown of their 20-year relationship. Seagrove was represented by Payne Hicks Beach and Sullivan by Cartwright King.

Holman noted that the money was spent in part arguing about a share in an asset that would be worth £500,000 each.

The judge added: ‘I wish to repeat, with the utmost clarity, to each of these parties that they have already expended a truly absurd amount of money on litigating about the aftermath of their relationship.’