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TV chef's claim against Withers must not be "swept under the carpet"

28 October 2009

Marco Pierre White’s claim that Withers, his estranged wife’s solicitors, unlawfully intercepted and retained private documents must not be “swept under the carpet”, the Court of Appeal has unanimously ruled.

However, the court also heard how the TV chef admitted telling Marcus Dearle, a partner at Withers and the second respondent, in a telephone conversation: “I hope you and your family rot in hell because that is where you’ve sent mine.”

Delivering the leading judgment in White v Withers and Dearle [2009] EWCA Civ 1122, Lord Justice Ward said solicitors were officers of the court and if they had done wrong they must face justice.

“It is not conducive to the administration of justice that such claims are simply swept under the carpet,” he said. “It is in the public interest that the bounds of proper conduct be clarified.

“The interception and retention of Letty’s letter, more than the P&O contract, leaves me with such an uncomfortable feeling that for my part I would be reluctant to shut out the claimant and deny him his day in court.”

The letter from Letty, Marco Pierre White’s daughter from his first marriage, was one of 42 documents removed by his second wife Matilde, many of them originals, following the collapse of his second marriage in 2007.

Ward LJ described the letter as a “touching, almost heartbreaking, letter to her father expressing her love for him and her wish to see much more of him. It was a letter which desperately called for a speedy reply.

“It is alleged that this letter was not only intercepted but it was also withheld, thus denying Mr White the opportunity to respond to his daughter’s cry for help. Mr Dearle, an experienced family lawyer, may be open to criticism for withholding it.”

White claimed that the removal by Matilde of the contract from P&O meant that he had to go to the firm’s offices in Southampton to sign a duplicate version.

Ward LJ agreed with the decision of the judge at first instance, Mr Justice Eady, that White’s claims for misuse of confidential or private information should be struck out, but not the claims for the torts of trespass to goods and conversion. Lord Justice Sedley agreed.

“I recognise that the desire for vengeance on the lawyers acting for an estranged spouse is as common as it is irrational,” he said. “The courts are right to be wary about letting such expeditions through their doors.

“But if, among these, one turns out to be legally viable, the claimant’s motive cannot shut the court’s door; and this, I agree, is such a case.”

Lord Justice Wilson, who appeared as an advocate in Hildebrand v Hildebrand [1992] 1 FLR 244, the leading case on removal of documents belonging to one spouse by another to use as evidence, also agreed.

However, he added: “The animosity which often fuels litigation between spouses in the wake of divorce not uncommonly spills over towards the legal representatives of the other spouse.

“This is a claimant who admits that, in a telephone conversation as early as December 2006, he told the second defendant ‘I hope you and your family rot in hell because that is where you’ve sent mine’.”

Wilson LJ went on: “These factors combine to create a powerful case that the present civil action represents satellite litigation of an unwholesome kind, not genuinely founded on damage suffered but, rather, designed both to destabilise prosecution of the wife’s claims against the claimant and to secure vengeance for perceived wrongs perpetrated by the defendants in providing the wife with the expertise with which energetically to challenge his assertion that in effect he had no money with which to maintain her.

“On the other hand the defendants’ retention of 24 original documents ran counter to the Hildebrand ‘rules’ and may prove to have constituted the tort of trespass and/or conversion.”

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