The Marco Pierre White recipe making divorce courts shiver
The chef’s battle over evidence used by his wife in their break-up could change the way such cases are held
White and Mati at their wedding. He is suing her lawyers
Marco Pierre White had a difficult conversation with Letty, his 20-year-old daughter, last week. He is about to begin a legal action against the law firm that acted for Mati, his third wife, during their divorce and Letty had read about it in the newspapers.
In the acrimonious months leading up to their final separation in 2007, Mati had intercepted a number of private documents belonging to the celebrity chef which were used as part of her case: one was a letter from Letty, White’s daughter by his first wife, telling him she loved him and would like to see much more of him.
White, 48, knew nothing of the letter until it was produced in court. Until last week, when she read about it in the newspapers, Letty had no idea that the letter had not simply been lost in the post, nor that it had been read by strangers.
“I hadn’t told her before, I didn’t want to distress her,” says White. “My little girl broke down crying, in tears, telling me the words she wrote were for her father and nobody else. She felt violated.”
In 2008, when White first tried to sue Withers, the law firm, for damages, the case was struck out by Mr Justice Eady. But on appeal last October he was given leave to proceed: the appeal judges were particularly concerned by the withholding of Letty’s letter, which they described as “touching, almost heartbreaking ... a letter which desperately called for a speedy reply”.
Now he is bringing a renewed action for “interference with goods, conversion and trespass to chattels”. He is determined to see it through. “I will not settle. I don’t care what it costs. They don’t realise how tenacious I am,” he says.
Another sad example of how low down and dirty divorce cases can get? Well, yes, but this one has implications that have made family lawyers sit up: one said that it sent “shivers down the spine”.
The family courts have traditionally been a grey area for evidence, tacitly recognising that in emotionally fraught divorce cases there is a tendency to try to hide assets and that a beleaguered spouse (usually the wife) who suspects that there may be a bank account or a love affair hidden away may well resort to underhand tactics to expose it.
There are rules, of course. The 1992 case Hildebrand vs Hildebrand established the principle that it was acceptable to use documents that were left open or lying around, as long as they were copied and the originals were returned forthwith. It was not acceptable to break into someone’s study or their filing cabinet.
In the past, many lawyers may not have questioned the provenance of such “self-help” documents too closely. “If a client tells you a bank statement had been left lying around, obviously you take that at face value,” said one. But, if White wins, lawyers who handle or keep documents that have been obtained surreptitiously may lay themselves open to a lawsuit.
“It’s so far-reaching,” says Vanessa Lloyd Platt, whose company recently offered vouchers for legal advice on divorce as the perfect Christmas present. “A few years ago lawyers thought it was amazing because we had all these new technologies that would bring us evidence about whether someone was having an affair or whether they were dissipating or hiding assets. We’d have emails and text messages to look at, we’d have BlackBerrys, all sorts of things, and now it seems the law seems to be shutting it down, bit by bit.
“It is completely illegal to break into and look at your partner’s email account, even though it may contain some of the best evidence there is. You’re not allowed to break into somebody’s phone, even though men, particularly, text everything, like ‘what a wonderful sexual encounter that was last night, darling’ — it seems astonishing to lawyers that they are so vocal on text and email. But that’s been shut down. Private detectives now have limitations on what is and isn’t legal.”
Both data protection law and concerns over privacy have played a part in narrowing the evidence that can be presented as part of a divorce but spying, in any case, can be an uncertain business. Lloyd Platt cites a case in which her firm acted for a man who hired a private detective to follow his wife as he believed she was having affairs. The detective befriended the wife and “gave a new meaning to undercover work when he had an affair with the wife himself”. His report to the client named himself as the wife’s lover. As the evidence was tainted, it was never used.
In another case, where the firm acted for the husband, a wife produced documentation that made it clear she had hired an IT expert to hack into her husband’s accounts. What she had done was not only unwise but unnecessary: the husband had revealed his entire financial position anyway.
What such action does is to increase bitterness on both sides. A 44-year-old logistics manager for a large company, complained to the police when he found his (now ex) wife had planted spyware in his computer, sending her copies of every file he opened, including his emails.
“There was no excuse for doing it,” he says. “This was a middle-income case, she knew what I earned, I didn’t have anything to hide and I had a new relationship, which was already admitted. So what she found were communications with my new girlfriend and conversations with friends that simply made her even more hurt and angry than she already was.
“These were things that I never would have wanted her to read. I didn’t want to hurt her. We had been married for 25 years. It was just over, as far as I was concerned. But she ended up making herself very bitter over it all. It’s as if I’ve won the World Cup and she’s got nothing. The rules definitely need to be tightened up.”
There are no easy answers. People who are usually rational can lose their heads — and scruples — when it comes to divorce. “The first thing your friends down the pub will say is ‘hide everything you have’. It encourages people to become criminals,” says Suzy Miller, who founded the Starting Over Show, an exhibition for current and would-be divorcees that will run in London and Brighton in March.
“The whole thing would be helped if people weren’t allowed to marry without a pre-nup. We have this ridiculous idea that it’s unromantic to talk about money. You wouldn’t dream of going into business with someone without a contract but we blithely tie ourselves legally and financially to another person thinking love will make it all right.”
The heightened emotions make some cases seem intractable. Last month Scot Young, a property dealer, was ordered to pay his estranged wife Michelle £27,500 a month after a long court battle in which she claimed that he had assets of £400m: he said he didn’t have a penny, that he had been wiped out by the recession and owed £27m. The court is trying to assess the truth. The judge — in common with many who preside over fractious, messy divorces, one suspects — found aspects of the case “like Alice in Wonderland”.
High earners, usually men, can be clever at hiding their money and it’s not always easy to prevent a wife, who may have no income of her own, from rifling the desk drawers hoping to find some evidence.
According to Lloyd Platt, establishing facts has, in the past, excused some desperate behaviour: “The criminal courts were very strict on admissible evidence — they would rather the criminals went free than have some evidence admitted — but we were blessed that the civil law had an entirely different approach. It was a jurisdiction that would admit documentation, however obtained, provided it established the truth.”
If White’s case tightens the rule, we may end up with the law of unintended consequences: if a man really wants to hide his true worth, limiting the ways that his wife can investigate will help him to get away with it.