Prest v Petrodel Resources Ltd (2013)

English Family Law

 

Prest
‘City Buildings’ by Jose Trujillo

‘Piercing the corporate veil’ and the lawful applicability of s.24(1)(a) of Part II of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 are uneasily paired to establish liability in this post-matrimonial conflict of property transition, while the extensive evaluation of this mis-applied doctrine in cases of reminiscent yet distinguishable natures gives rise to ponder its continued relevance.

Following the lengthy divorce of a shrewd businessman and his estranged wife, the order of the court to transfer title of a number of properties to the appellant was met with continued evasion and somewhat aggressive objection when the ex-husband consistently went to great lengths in order to frustrate proceedings, and through his refusal to permit the submission of evidence in order to expedite the legal obligation put before him.

First developed in Re Barcelona Traction Light and Power Co Ltd the intended effect of ‘piercing the corporate veil’ was to stymie the deliberate and fraudulent actions of those parties holding controlling shares of limited companies for the sole purpose of self-interest and avoidance of legal duties, while s.24(1)(a) of the 1973 Act provides that:

“[A]n order that a party to the marriage shall transfer to the other party, to any child of the family or to such person as may be specified in the order for the benefit of such a child such property as may be so specified, being property to which the first-mentioned party is entitled, either in possession or reversion…”

However on this occasion there were a number of other properties acquired by the respondent through his established companies, while the majority of the funds used were alleged to have been sourced individually. 

While it was accepted that the matrimonial home would be handed over, the time wasted by the respondent in clarifying his legal and beneficial entitlement to the remaining seven properties led the High Court of Justice to rely upon the above principle in order to establish precise liability and enforce the transfer on grounds that:

“[A]ll the assets held within the companies are effectively the husband’s property. He is able to procure their disposal as he may direct based again on his being the controller of the companies and the only beneficial owner.”

Thus when challenged in the Court of Appeal the appellant argued against the piercing of the corporate veil on grounds that the narrowness of the principle’s design prevented it from such arbitrary application, whereupon the Court upheld the appeal while holding that:

“[T]he only entity with the power to deal with assets held by it is the company.”

Whereupon the case was finally presented before the UK Supreme Court, who took the time to examine previous judicial exercise of this rigid and yet shoe-horned legal moral before upholding the appeal on grounds that transfer of title could take effect through statute, while reminding the parties that:

“[T]he corporate veil may be pierced only to prevent the abuse of corporate legal personality.”