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UK Case: Courts and the Objective Truth

In Adepoju v. Akinola[1], a case involving a claim for probate, a UK Court was required to review and base its decision on contradictory and confusing evidence. Master Matthews, hearing the matter, spoke at length in his reasons about how English civil courts reach their decisions, ultimately finding that the decision of a Court is not necessarily the objective truth of the matters in issue. Instead, it is the most likely view of what happened based on the materials the parties chose to put before the Court.

The case is reviewed by Stephen Richards of Withers LLP in an article titled “UK: Two Weddings and a Funeral”.

The Facts

Medinat Adepoju (the “Deceased”) died intestate. The Deceased’s estate (the “Estate”) had significant value.

The Deceased’s daughter, the “Claimant”, applied for Letters of Administration. The “Defendant” entered a caveat against the estate alleging that he was the Deceased’s widower. The Claimant filed and served a warning to the caveat. The Defendant entered an appearance to the warning. As a result, the Claimant brought a probate claim. The two parties to the claim disputed the other party’s status as a beneficiary of the Estate. However, each side was also concerned that whoever administered the Estate would favour himself or herself. As a result, this interlocutory decision relates primarily to who should administer the Estate and not with the ultimate question of who is entitled to a share of the Estate on intestacy.

The question of who was able to obtain Letters of Administration depended on whether the Deceased and the Defendant were legally married in England. There were questions about whether a marriage ceremony had taken place in Nigeria, whether the Defendant was legally divorced from his previous wife, whether the Deceased and the Defendant had a biological child together, and whether there had been a polygamous marriage. The evidence before the Court on these points was largely insufficient, and was often confusing and contradictory.

Master Matthews found that the Claimant lied to the Court about why she had taken £17,000 from the Deceased’s bank account after her death. As a result, he concluded that he could not accept the Claimant’s evidence unless it was independently corroborated.

Master Matthews found that the Defendant was a better witness than the Claimant and where he gave direct evidence, the Court accepted it. Unfortunately, much of the Defendant’s evidence was based on what he had been told by others. In this regard, Master Matthews commented that the Defendant “may have persuaded himself of the truth of things that he was told and in which he wishe[d] to believe.”

Two other minor witnesses were called by the parties. Neither of them was present at the events in question and so their evidence was of limited assistance to the Court. Master Matthews referred to one of these witnesses as “unremarkable” and indicated that he had no reason to believe the witness told anything but the truth. In contrast, the other witness was described as “argumentative, theatrical and sure she was right”. Master Matthews noted that she “asked questions rather than answering them.”

The “Objective Truth”

In light of the forgoing, Master Matthews grappled with how to approach and consider the evidence in order to reach a decision. On this point, he held at paragraphs 10-13 of the decision, as follows:

  1. There are three general points about the way that English civil courts reach their decisions which I should make at this early stage. The lawyers in the case undoubtedly know them, but their clients may not. They are subject to a qualification which I shall mention after making them. The first is that, in our system, it is for the parties to seek out and place before the court the material which they consider will assist the court and promote their case. It is not for the court to investigate of its own motion. Other relevant material may possibly exist somewhere else, but it is not the duty of the court to look for it. In general terms, the court makes a decision only on the material put before it by the parties.
  2. The second point is that, in English civil procedure law, one party or the other bears the burden of proving any particular matter in issue between them. If the person bearing that burden satisfies the finder of fact (judge or jury), after considering the material before the court, that on the balance of probabilities a thing happened, then, for the purposes of deciding the case, it did happen. If that person does not so satisfy the fact finder, then that thing did not happen. The system is binary, and the judge decides on the basis of the burden of proof. There is thus no room for maybe: see Re B (Children) [2009] 1 AC 11, [2], per Lord Hoffmann.
  3. The third point is that, where a party could give or call relevant evidence on an important point without apparent difficulty, a failure to do so may in some circumstances entitle the Court to draw an inference adverse to that party, sufficient to strengthen evidence adduced by the other party or weaken evidence given by the party so failing: see Wisniewski v Central Manchester Health Authority [1998] PIQR 324, CA; Jaffray v Society of Lloyds [2002] EWCA Civ 1101, [406]-[407]; Thames Valley Housing Association v Elegant Homes (Guernsey) Ltd [2011] EWHC 1288 (Ch), [19].
  4. Added together, these points mean that the decision of the court is not necessarily the objective truth of the matters in issue. Instead it is the most likely view of what happened, based on the material that the parties have chosen to put before the court, taking into account to some extent also what the court considers that they should have been able to put before the court but chose not to. The conclusions to which I have come below must be seen in that light. [emphasis added]

Master Matthews then qualified these points with respect to probate claims.[2] He noted that probate claims are at least in part not merely claims as between one party and another, without any impact on third parties. Instead, probate claims are to some extent claims in rem that have an impact on others. He held that the Court therefore approaches the finding of fact in the ways set out above, but keeps an eye on the need to avoid prejudice to third parties by deciding only between two competing versions of what happened.

The Decision

The Court found that the Deceased and the Defendant were not legally married. As a result, he was not her widower and was not entitled to Letters of Administration on that ground. The Court further held that because no evidence was called with respect to whether the Defendant and the Deceased had a biological child, the Defendant could not obtain Letters of Administration on that basis either. However, he noted that this issue may have bearing on the ultimate issue as to who should benefit from the Estate.

The Court also found that it could not grant Letters of Administration to the Claimant given that she had deliberately lied to the Court. Consequently, give the unsuitability of the parties, the Court appointed an independent administrator.

Stephen Richards article can be found at:
http://www.mondaq.com/x/570458/Civil+Law/Two+weddings+and+a+funeral

[1] [2016] EWHC 3160 (Ch). http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2016/3160.html

[2] Ibid at para 14.

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