A recent complaint before The Law Society would suggest warring spouses should think twice before seeking legal heavyweights to resolve matrimonial differences.
The subject of the complaint, the current Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, was unanimously and totally exonerated of all claims in the case which arose from a difficult family law dispute between Michael Izatt and Jillian Godsil. The complaint was brought by Godsil who had retained Shatter as her divorce lawyer until he came off record mid-way through her divorce proceedings. His actions prior to that point, and indeed subsequent, were the object of the long winded, but ultimately rejected, complaint.
Godsil may be known to some as the Irish divorcee who sold her house on YouTube until the banks stopped the sale. She was landed with a mortgage of some €1million on a house worth less than half that amount when her ex, returning to the UK to go bankrupt, gave the entire mortgage to his ex-wife and their two young daughters. Last month, she was served repossession papers, so she dropped the asking price of her well-known Georgian Manor House to €250,000 and has received a formal offer. However, her bank refuses to talk to her as yet and repossession hearings are proceeding. It is worth noting that the house was once valued at €1.65 million in the days of the heady Celtic Tiger and indeed she received a cash offer of €500,000 last year which the banks refused.
Of course, whatever price the house finally sells at, under Irish law, Godsil is now solely responsible for the balance of the mortgage.
Godsil’s fame, notably for being broke, was aided by a quirky video to sell the property. This went viral and her story featured in papers, online, radio and television both domestically and abroad. She was featured on American radio, Belgian TV, RTE, TV3 and most recently on BBC2’s Newsnight programme.
In all her many public interviews Godsil has said relatively little about her ex’s role in her financial demise and nothing at all about her legal adviser. The former has avoided public disapproval possibly because he is the father of their two children and she has concentrated instead on the disparity in the bankruptcy laws between the UK and Ireland. On the latter, her dissatisfaction with the legal service afforded her (a moot point, of which more later) seems not to have been given airtime as she was following a formal complaint procedure with The Law Society. If that was indeed the case, any hopes for any satisfactory conclusion were dashed this month when The Law Society utterly rejected all her causes for complaint.
The main reason for the breakdown between divorce lawyer and client appears to have arisen from advice dispensed at the beginning of the legal proceedings. Godsil and her ex were directors in a limited company whose purpose was to provide public relations services. This PR Company was run by Godsil and enjoyed lucrative revenues during the boom years. As the marriage disintegrated, Godsil was advised by Shatter to set up a new company, taking nothing from the old. He explicitly advised her in writing to remain as director in the old company as there were considerable collectibles still outstanding. Despite her misgivings, Godsil followed this advice to the letter.
Of course there is nothing so dirty as divorce. The old company without Godsil at the helm soon stopped altogether and the wounded Izatt was advised by his then law firm (he changed legal teams three times in the process of this protracted divorce) to put Godsil into the Commercial High Court for the abrogation of her fiduciary duties under the Foss Harbottle exception. This precedent basically rules that an individual cannot be director of two, competing companies. No doubt the ‘cha-ching’ of cash registers could be heard on both sides of the benches at this opening salvo.
Godsil felt increasingly unhappy that following to the letter as she saw her solicitor’s instructions had laid her open to such charges. Although Shatter argued, ultimately successfully, that the Commercial charges were an attempt to extract palimony from the wife and lodged a family case in the High Court at the same time which ultimately joined the commercial case, his advices continued to rankle with her. As time went on, she also objected to being told by her own divorce lawyer that she had indeed contravened commercial law and that it was her fault her actions laid her open to these initial commercial proceedings.
The Law Society totally upheld Shatter over Godsil’s complaint that his initial recommendation had been badly advised and exonerated him from any wrong doing for his advice. However, what cannot be denied was the rapid deterioration in the professional relationship between Shatter and his aggrieved client. Finally, Shatter requested that he come off record but refused to release her files to her new law firm.
At the point, midway if she but knew it in the torturously expensive legal proceedings, Godsil had already paid an initial sum of €4,000 as a deposit to Shatter and had borrowed a further €22,000 to pay interim bills after strong requests from the legal firm while relations were still cordial.
Despite payment of these significant sums of money and while being intimately acquainted with the downwardly spiralling nature of Godsil’s financial affairs, Shatter refused to release her files until finally ordered to by Judge Abbot. This was not without consequences as Godsil’s new legal firm were forced to act as guarantors of her debt, a position which made them very unhappy.
Godsil went to taxation (to fix final fees by the independent Taxing Master) but only managed to reduce the balance of her fees against Gallagher Shatter by approximately €5,000. She still owed some €30,000 plus. A taxing accountant hired for the purpose of representing her professed that he was so appalled by the proceedings, and upon successful reduction of her balancing liability, did not tender a fee note to Godsil. His opinion seemed to suggest Godsil had been through enough. Of course, there was more to come according to the complaint, again totally exonerated by The Law Society.
At that stage Godsil began trying to repay the balance of fees to Gallagher Shatter in installments of €500 per month but soon ran into difficulties when the firm refused to issue her with receipts. She sought advice from The Law Society who advised her that she was entitled to them, but claims that no receipts were at any stage forthcoming.
As Godsil faced into the final and protracted legal proceedings with her ex (he changed law firms as mentioned three times, sometimes failed to have a legal representative and forced delays when he did not have documents to hand) she discovered Gallagher Shatter had named her in Stubbs Gazette and moreover began debt recovery proceedings in the Circuit Court. As her current divorce solicitors were unable to represent her due to a conflict of interests, Godsil was forced to hire yet another solicitor to represent her.
Prior to this she sought to head off the fresh and unnecessary legal action by writing to Shatter and confirming that not only would she pay but she had an asset under advanced negotiations and would be in a position to clear the debt in its entirety within a matter of months. Her new divorce firm, also defacto debt collectors for Shatter, wrote to say exactly the same. However, these letters and assurances were ignored and the matter proceeded.
Godsil tried to argue to The Law Society that pursuance of the outstanding debt was vexatious as she was not denying payment, indeed would be able to pay in a very short time period and was moreover guaranteeing this assurance in writing from her legal firm. The Law Society totally upheld Shatter and denied this complaint too.
Another serious complaints rejected by The Law Society was Godsil’s claim of doubling billing. Shatter charged a consultancy fee for his time and also charged for whatever junior solicitor was present taking notes, pushing consultation fees to near four figure amounts. This was rejected as a complaint by The Law Society as these terms and conditions were clearly set out in the opening letter of appointment. Godsil tried to argue that such was her distress at her marriage breaking down she was not fully cognisant of these terms. She also argued that she could not remember actually signing this appointment letter and to her knowledge Gallagher Shatter were not able to furnish a signed copy of these terms. Her complain was rejected.
Not providing receipts initially rankled with Godsil on a professional basis, as part of the legal fees were to be borne by her company, but both professional neglect and possible noncompliance with revenue were rejected out of hand.
The other long list of complaints brought by Godsil, and rejected by The Law Society, included claims of verbal bullying during consultations (supported by family members who attended with her) and extreme rudeness by office staff, including having the phone hung up on her during one conversation with a secretary. Another twist in the tale was a phone call made by the Minister after an anonymous piece featuring Godsil ran in the Irish Independent. The article covered the dropping of interest by the Minister for his fees once he gained office. However, this article caused the Minister to ring a mutual third party and advise Godsil not to go public with their professional relationship. Godsil claimed it was a question of intimidation by the Minster. The Law Society said it was not.
Asked why she pursued her complaints through The Law Society and not through adversarial means where costs might be gained, Godsil replied that her intention was to highlight the possible abuses that the incamera rule in family law afforded solicitors. “I would not have anyone experience the lack of professional courtesy and bullying I received at the hands of my solicitor. It is an open secret in legal circles but only hard learnt by individuals such as myself. Divorce is hard enough without your solicitor attacking you.
“Having survived the long winded, painful and hugely expensive ordeal, I am moreover deeply saddened that every single one of my complaints has been rejected by the Law Society, especially the accusation of bullying,” she said.
So there the sorry tale ends. When everything was accounted for in the proceedings Godsil had nothing left over. Like the infamous Jarndyce and Jarndyce affair in Dicken’s Bleak House, when the lawyers stopped talking everything was gone in costs. Godsil seems to have been singularly unlucky in her relationships both in her initial choice of husband and subsequent divorce lawyer. Her ex husband has walked free of the million plus debt on the family home through the vagaries of inter-country commity and her long list of complaints against her divorce lawyer have been totally rejected by The Law Society.
May she have a happier experience in choosing husbands and divorce lawyers in the future.