AFTER hearing the appeal of the former wife of one of Britain’s richest men for over two days last week, seven Supreme Court Judges of the United Kingdom (UK), including the President of the Supreme Court – Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbuty – will, over the next few months, deliver what could be a landmark judgement in the bitter divorce suit between Itsekiri multi-millionaire oil tycoon, Michael Prest, and his former English wife, Yasmin Aishatu Prest.
The couple, who have four children, oldest is 15, met and married in London in 1993. They lived happily thereafter till a bitter split in 2008.
In what is the third and obviously the final round of the legal tussle that has cost Prest and his former wife about £3 million in legal fees to divorce lawyers, Mrs. Prest, 50, has prayed the highest court of the UK to quash the ruling of the Court of Appeal (England and Wales), which ruled that 51-year-old Prest could use Nigerian Customary law to shield his multimillion assets from being split with his former wife. The judges, six men and Lady Hale of Richmond, will, in the coming months, give the ruling, which will set legal precedence for similar cases involving legal disputes between husbands and wives in Great Britain.
On Friday, Supreme Court sources told The Guardian that the “judgement doesn’t come that quickly. It takes a couple of months for the Judges to deliver their judgement after a case has finished,” when asked how soon the judgement would be delivered.
Prior to dragging her former husband before the Law Lords last week, the High Court had, in October 2011, ruled that Prest should give a lump sum of £17.5 million of his wealth and some London properties as settlement to his former wife, after she asked for over £30million maintenance payout and £730,000 per annum to cover “reasonable needs” for both herself and their four children.
However, he headed straight for the Court of Appeal and in February last year, citing Itsekiri Customary Law. In October, his lawyers won the appeal and got an order slashing the High Court ruling by almost £9 million. Thereby, reducing his wife’s payout to over £8 million.
Citing the customary Nigerian law, lawyers representing Prest said the oil tycoon, having lost his father – who set him up in business with a seed gift of £10,000 before his death in 1992- is not only the head of his extended family, but also responsible for the welfare of his four brothers and their children.
Besides, Prest’s lawyers argued that by virtue of the same Nigerian Customary Law, the assets of their client belong to the family and not solely those of their multimillionaire client.
In essence, what Prest’s lawyers and those of the three companies – Petrodel Resources Ltd, Petrodel Upstream Ltd. and Vermount Petroleum Ltd – he owns, said last week was that, under Nigerian Customary Law, those three oil companies and their assets belong to their client’s family and not solely his.
The companies are all registered in the Isle of Man.
But Mrs. Prest’s lawyers based their arguments on Section 24(1)(a) of Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, to ask the Judges to reverse the order, which Prest got at the Appeal Court in October last year, where his lawyers had invoked Nigerian Customary law to quash the order of the High Court.
Also added to the prayer of his former wife is the fact that Prest, who resides in Monaco, had not even paid the mother of his four children neither the lump sum, which was slashed by nearly half nor the £270, 000 –a –year allowance, which the Court ordered him to pay her. Her lawyer argued that if his client lost this case, other husbands would similarly be able to dishonestly use this legal precedence to hide their assets behind a corporate veil, thereby denying their wives a fair slice of their fortune.
Mrs. Prest’s legal team also underlined the fact that if the case went against their client, the Marital Causes Act – a legislation meant to give divorcing spouses a fair share of their assets – would become meaningless.
Although the court was told that Mrs. Prest still lives in their £4 million marital home in Bayswater, West London, and that her former husband is paying over £100,000 per annum in school fees for the couple’s four children’s education in private schools, he has refused to obey courts orders that he should pay her massive legal costs.
Moreover, he has been handing out just a meagre £150 per week as maintenance allowance. Her lawyers went further, accusing him of using a “cheats charter” to hide his oil money in offshore companies.
Mrs. Prest’s barrister, Richard Todd QC –Queen’s Counsel, the equivalent of SAN – told the court on Tuesday that: “It is not hyperbole to say that this is a case where, if the companies succeed, this wife will be rendered destitute. They say it is not the case that this is a “cheats charter,” even though it would result in Mr. Prest and his companies coming away with tens of millions of pounds, while the wife is reduced to claiming benefits. They say it is not a “cheats charter’ because there are potentially other remedies available to the wife. We say this is not so.” He described his client’s former husband as someone who has exhibited a strong desire to “thwart the intentions of the court.”
Todd also said that coupled with this is the wrong signal that this judgement –if it went against Mrs. Prest – would send out to other warring couples across the UK. “It would be a simple matter to incorporate a company, or better still use a company already incorporated, in order to retain assets and make them judgement –proof in a case such as this. This would be that very “cheats charter,” and more importantly, “it would reduce the Matrimonial Causes Act to being nothing more than a scarecrow.”
Although Prest claims he wants to give his former wife shares in the companies, her lawyer would rather his client have nothing to do with that. Todd told the court that waiting to get a slice of the companies would be a wasteful exercise for his client. Basing his argument on the way the companies’ ownership is structured, Todd noted that Prest had already woven such a “web of deceit in respect of ownership of these shares that it would be impossible to ever work out what the position is.”
He compared entering into any agreement with his client’s former husband as being equivalent to her “being led in a merry dance without any reward.” Continuing, Todd added: “The husband who is resident in Monaco, simply uses these companies as his piggy bank,” noting that although “he is supposed to be paying Mrs Prest £270,000 per annum, but he simply chooses not to pay that.”
Todd made it clear that Mr Prest “is paying Mrs Prest £150 cash per week – £7,800 per annum , a little bit less than the minimum wage.”
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