The English High Court has recently refused to grant letters of administration to a deceased's daughter (the "Claimant") despite her having the highest entitlement to the deceased's estate. The dispute involved a challenge by the alleged widower of the deceased (the "Defendant"), who was found not to have been validly married to the deceased. Therefore the Court declined to grant the Defendant letters of administration. Nonetheless, the Court found that the Claimant had deliberately lied to Court and thus also declined to grant her letters of administration. Instead, the Court exercised its jurisdiction to appoint "some other person" as administrator. This case is a reminder that all parties need to act lawfully and properly when presenting evidence or face the consequences.
The Claimant brought a claim for inter alia the grant of letters of administration. The Defendant claimed that he and the deceased were validly married and that therefore he was the next of kin of the deceased and should be granted letters of administration.
It was not disputed that the Defendant had been previously married or that if that marriage still subsisted any subsequent marriage to the deceased would be void under the laws of polygamy. It was the Defendant's case that he and his first wife divorced in 2003 and he married the deceased in April 2006 in Nigeria. It was the Claimant's case that the Defendant's first marriage subsisted at all material times. To support his case, the Defendant gave evidence that his first wife told him that she had obtained a divorce from him in Nigeria. The Defendant did not adduce any documentary evidence to demonstrate the divorce nor was his first wife called to give evidence.
Regarding the issue of the Defendant's alleged marriage to the deceased, it was not disputed that there was a family gathering in Nigeria in April 2006 at which the deceased, the Defendant and the Claimant were present. The Defendant alleged that this gathering was a customary wedding between the deceased and the Defendant. The Claimant alleged that this gathering was a house warming party for her uncle. Photographs were adduced by the Defendant and a joint single expert gave evidence on customary marriages.
The Court held that, on the evidence, it could not conclude that the Defendant and his first wife were divorced. An adverse inference was drawn against the Defendant for failing to adduce sufficient evidence and he had not discharged the burden of proof. There could therefore not have been a valid marriage between the Defendant and the deceased. The Defendant was not entitled to either letters of administration or any share in the deceased's estate on intestacy.
Notwithstanding the above, the Court held that the evidence showed that the gathering in Nigeria in April 2006 was intended to be a customary marriage. In so concluding, the Court found that the Claimant must have known what was happening and had deliberately lied to the Court in giving her version of events. In such circumstances, the Court considered it would not be appropriate to grant letters of administration to the Claimant. Rather, the Court exercised its jurisdiction under the Senior Courts Act 1981 to appoint "some other person" as administrator of the deceased's estate.
In reaching its decision, the Court outlined a number of general principles concerning matters of evidence and burden of proof. It noted that it was for the parties to seek out and place material before the Court, and that it is not for the Court to investigate matters of its own motion. It further noted that one party will bear the burden of proof on the balance of probabilities. Finally, the Court noted that where a party fails to call relevant evidence on a point where it could have done so without any apparent difficulty, the Court may draw an adverse inference against that party. These principles together meant "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 case serves as a reminder to parties of these basic principles and the importance of maintaining credibility throughout a dispute. Whilst it is trite to say that parties should not lie to the Court, in reaching the view that the Claimant had lied, the Court noted they did not find the Claimant a satisfactory witness for reasons other than merely her testimony including her body language and lack of eye contact. In cases involving one side's story contradicting the others and little supporting documentary evidence, it is crucial to remember the importance of maintaining credibility.