Following the recent Court of Appeal Judgment in the case of Imerman it is now not a simple process to uncover a spouses wealth. Historically if a spouse (usually the wife) had a good root around her husband’s study and copied his personal and business documents, this was acceptable as long as she didn’t break open any doors or cupboards to do so and she quickly passed them to her solicitors to immediately give to the husbands lawyers.
In those situations the information could be used within the divorce proceedings and the husband had to respond to any issues this information raised within his financial disclosure.
Whilst not actively encouraged it was considered that this "self-help" was an important aid to ensure that husband’s gave full disclosure of their financial circumstances.
Now the Court of Appeal has stamped firmly on this sort of behaviour, describing it as a breach of the age old law of "confidence". It possibly also involves criminal offences such as theft or burglary and, where information may have been downloaded from a husband’s personal password protected computer, criminal offences under the Computer Misuse Act and Data Protection Act. Serious matters with potentially grave consequences and wives should be dissuaded for going on such fishing expeditions however much help to their case that information may be.
The court did not feel that it could condone such "self-help" despite the benefit to the court of a true picture of the family’s wealth before deciding how to divide it.
A wife is now left in the position that, if she believes the husband is not properly declaring his assets, she must have enough of a suspicion, and proof to go with it, to enable her to obtain an order for the seizure of documents. A high threshold exists to be proven to obtain such an order and any application will entail significant costs.
The husband can obtain an order for the return of the documents taken by the wife to him and destruction of any copies taken, thereby severally curtailing their use within divorce proceedings.
This decision leaves some spouses in a precarious financial position whilst allowing other spouses intent on hiding their true wealth a greater opportunity to do so.