The High Court has dismissed two committal applications for contempt of court brought by Bill Reeves, son of the late self-made millionaire Kevin Reeves, against sister, Louise Reeves, and solicitor, Daniel Curnock, on the grounds that there was no strong clear case against them.
A committal application is a specific type of legal action available to parties in circumstances where the defendant has knowingly given false evidence in court proceedings. The consequences of a successful committal application are potentially severe for the defendant as they involve criminal-style penalties (such as fines, asset confiscation and imprisonment) being imposed by the court.
Here, the committal applications came about following Bill Reeves' successful will validity challenge in 2022, in which the court held that Louise Reeves, who stood to inherit 80% of the £100m estate under the disputed will, had pulled the wool over their father’s eyes in the events leading up to and surrounding its execution, such that the will did not reflect their father’s true testamentary intentions and was invalid because he did not know or approve its contents. Bill Reeves alleged that Louise Reeves and the solicitor instructed in relation to the disputed will had knowingly and/or recklessly given false evidence during the course of the probate proceedings and, as such, should be subject to committal proceedings.
This time, however, it was Louise Reeves’ turn to come out on top. Not only were both committal applications dismissed (on the basis that that there was no strong clear case against Louise Reeves or the solicitor, and it was not in the public interest to pursue the applications), but the judge went so far as to express disapproval of Bill Reeves’ litigation tactics and raise concerns that his applications were motivated by “a vindictive desire to punish Louise” (who in the judge’s view had already paid “literally and heavily” for her actions in relation to the disputed will and had already been “adequately punished” in the eyes of the public) and “as a means of harassing” the solicitor (whose “professional reputation had already been dragged through the mud”).
Committal proceedings are often threatened against individuals and professionals in the context of private wealth disputes. Whilst this recent case shows that such threats are sometimes acted upon, it also shows that the court will only grant permission to commence committal proceedings sparingly and will be reluctant to do so in circumstances (like in this case) where:
- the defendant has already paid heavily (whether personally, reputationally, or financially) for his/her actions in relation to the application
- the defendant acted promptly to correct their evidence in the original proceedings where the issue was raised and
- the claimant may be pursuing the application for his/her own benefit or advantage.
...these are not proceedings which should be pursued for the benefit or advantage of private individuals.