LONDON (AFP) – The ex-wife of a Nigerian oil tycoon on Wednesday won a lengthy court battle in Britain for properties he owned worth millions of pounds, in a Supreme Court ruling with significant implications for divorcing couples.
Lawyers for Michael Prest had claimed the properties were not his to hand over because they were legally owned by companies in his Petrodel group.
But seven judges at the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, ruled unanimously in favour of his English wife Yasmin, who he married in 1993 and divorced in 2011.
They found the disputed properties were held on trust for Michael Prest and he was “beneficially entitled” to them, and as such they were eligible to be transferred to his ex-wife.
Yasmin Prest said she was “delighted and relieved” at the decision, adding: “None of this would have been necessary if Michael had been sensible and played fair.”
One of the judges, Lord Jonathan Sumpton, said it was not possible to give “general guidance” following the ruling, saying the issue of whether company assets were beneficially owned by their controller was a “fact-specific issue”.
But family law experts said the ruling was highly significant.
“It means that business people cannot deliberately ‘hide’ their assets in businesses and corporate structures to protect them in future in the event of a divorce,” said Alison Hawes, a specialist family lawyer at Irwin Mitchell.
Marilyn Stowe, senior partner of Stowe family law, said the ruling was a “victory for common sense” and the judges had found an “ingenious way” around existing company and family law.
Michael Hutchinson, a partner at law firm Mayer Brown, said experts would be poring over the “extraordinary” judgement for some time to try to understand its limits.
“The Supreme Court has handed down a landmark decision in which, for the first time since at least the end of the 19th century, it has accepted a general exception to the rule against ‘piercing the corporate veil’,” he said.
The couple, both aged in their early 50s, have properties in Nigeria and the Caribbean, and lived to a “very high standard”, according to evidence given at hearings.
Prest claimed to be worth about £48 million (57 million euros, $75 million) but Yasmin Prest said he could have assets worth “hundreds of millions” of pounds, the court heard.
Wednesday’s decision overturns a Court of Appeal ruling last year that Prest did not have to hand over property to his wife. He was not in court to hear the judgment.