What does the term ‘self-help’ mean in divorce?

Find out what self help means in terms of divorce from our expert family solicitors.

16 August 2023

Divorce and separation wedding ring and contract

It is not unheard of, when spouses are trying to reach a financial agreement at the time of their divorce, for one or both to question the financial information being provided by the other. This can lead to one party accessing private documents or information relating to the other’s financial assets which they then seek to use within the financial negotiations in court proceedings. This is called ‘self-help’.

Several published cases have sought to deal with the issues that arise from a spouse obtaining confidential information belonging to the other. The most notable of these cases is that of ‘Imerman’. In this case, Mrs Imerman’s brother was concerned that her husband would conceal financial assets when she started divorce proceedings. He shared an office and computer system with the husband, Mr Imerman, so accessed his computer and downloaded a significant amount of financial information, some of which was handed to Mrs Imerman’s solicitors. In accordance with the rules existing at the time, Mrs Imerman’s solicitors handed the material to her husband’s solicitors. Mr Imerman then successfully sought an order from the court, restraining the use of these documents and seeking their return, but Mrs Imerman appealed this decision. The Court of Appeal set down principles which were to apply to ‘self-help’.

Following the decision in Imerman, further guidance has been given by the courts as to how, what are now known as ‘Imerman’ documents and ‘self-help’ should be dealt with in financial remedy proceedings. Both spouses and the solicitors representing them must be aware of that guidance as there can be both criminal and civil implications if they are not followed.

The key points for spouses to be aware of are:

  • A right of confidentiality exists between spouses and partners, as it does between other third parties.
  • If you obtain confidential financial information, this information must be returned to the owner. Once this information is returned, the spouse who owns that information must disclose what is relevant to the other spouse’s financial claim. Linked to that is the spouse who wrongly obtained the information is entitled to rely on their recollection of the contents.
  • Your solicitor may very well not be able to read any documents or emails belonging to your spouse and parties must operate on the basis that whilst the court can admit unlawfully obtained evidence, this is likely to be the exception rather than the rule.

There does remain some uncertainty in the law as to when a document will be treated as confidential. For example, the Court may take the view that a document lost its confidentiality if it is left lying around the house, but there are no definite rules. If you have obtained information belonging to your spouse or partner, then seek professional advice from a Family Solicitor before dealing with that information.

We know how the difficulties and emotional turmoil experienced when going through divorce proceedings can affect you and your family which is why we aim to make the process as easy as possible. We work with you to help get the outcome you deserve. For more information contact us online here or give us a call on 0330 041 5869.

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