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Joshua Rozenberg
Friday 28th January 2011
Judge goes on too long
A High Court judge has been criticised by the Court of Appeal for writing a judgment that was "far too long, too discursive and too unwieldy".

The 484-paragraph judgment was given by Mr Justice Charles in a "big-money" divorce case last February.

Victoria Jones, 44, claimed at the Court of Appeal that she had received just 20% of the £25 million marriage assets from her former husband Gareth, an oil technology millionaire. She wanted £10 million.

Mr Jones, 58, who has retired to his 16th-century castle in Scotland, had said the settlement was fair following a "troubled" 10-year marriage.

But three judges at the Court of Appeal found that the value of the assets generated during the marriage was £16 million and Mrs Jones should have half. 

Lord Justice Wilson said he had spent days trying to understand the judgment delivered by Mr Justice Charles last February.

The appeal judge quoted an article in the magazine Family Law by Ashley Murray, a barrister. This began:

There are certain challenges each of us should attempt in our lifetime and for most these involve a particular jump, a mountain climb, etc. Akin to these in the legal world would be reading from first to last a judgment of Mr Justice Charles.

Lord Justice Wilson continued:

Mr Murray's introductory sentences were witty and brave. In respect at any rate of the judgment in the present case, they were also, I am sorry to say, apposite.

The judgment is a monument to the intellectual energy of the judge. Nevertheless, notwithstanding my extreme personal discomfort in saying so, I feel driven to describe it as far too long, too discursive and too unwieldy. I have devoted days to trying to understand it.

So have the parties' advisers, at substantial further cost to the parties themselves. With respect to a colleague whom I greatly admire, I refuse to accept that our modern principles of ancillary relief are as complex as the content of the judgment of Mr Justice Charles implies.

Lady Justice Arden and Sir Nichaolas Wall, president of the Family Division, agreed the Mr Justice Charles's judgment was "over-lengthy". But Lord Justice Wilson did not seem to think this could have been the fault of the lawyers in the case:

The judge attributed the length of his judgment to the unsatisfactory way in which counsel on both sides had presented the dispute to him...Very properly, counsel have not taken up our time in seeking to challenge the judge's criticisms of them in this appeal. So his criticisms of them stand.

In such circumstances, however, perhaps it is only fair for me to compliment all four counsel, leading and junior, on the sharp focus of their short skeleton arguments for the appeal and on the efficient economy of their oral submissions at the hearing before us, which proceeded for only four hours.

Lawyers say that Mr Justice Charles is the most appealed-against judge in the High Court Family Division and the one whose judgments are overturned the most. 

Sir William Charles, 62, had a Chancery practice before being appointed a family judge in 1998.

 
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About Joshua Rozenberg

Joshua Rozenberg is an independent legal commentator who presents Law in Action on BBC Radio 4.

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