Relationship Property and Discovery in the New Zealand Family Court

The discovery regime in the Family Court is governed by r 141(1) Family Courts Rules.  Rule 141 provides as follows:

141    Order for discovery after proceedings commenced

(1)     If a notice of defence or a notice of intention to appear has been filed, a party may apply to the court for an order for discovery of documents—

(a)        that are, or have been, in the possession of another party to the proceedings; and

(b)        that relate to a matter in question in the proceedings.

(2)     An application under subclause (1) must be accompanied by an affidavit specifying—

(a)        the extent of the discovery required; and

(b)        the reasons for the discovery.

(2A)   On receipt of an application made in accordance with subclauses (1) and (2), the court may order the party referred to in subclause (1)(a) to file an affidavit stating—

(a)        whether certain documents or classes of documents are or have been in that party’s possession, custody, or power; and

(b)        if the party had the documents or classes of documents but has now parted with the documents or classes of documents, when the party did so and what became of the documents or classes of documents.

(3)     An order for discovery—

(a)        must be in form G 15 (order for discovery of documents); and

(b)        must be served by the applicant on the party against whom the order is made.

(4)     A party against whom an order for discovery is made must, within 10 working days after the service of the order or any further time the court may allow on an interlocutory application for the purpose,—

(a)        file an affidavit of documents in form G 16 (affidavit of documents); and

(b)        serve a copy of the affidavit of documents on every other party to the proceeding who has filed an address for service.

(5)     If the proceedings are under the Child Support Act 1991, nothing in this rule limits the application of the secrecy provisions of that Act or the Tax Administration Act 1994.

Because of the way in which the rule is structured, discovery in the Family Court is something of an anomaly when compared with discovery in the High Court or in the District Court.  To put it simply, the Peruvian Guano approach is still applicable and the rule gives statutory validity to the Peruvian Guano “train of enquiry rule”.  Essentially, the “train of enquiry rule” is that documents must be discovered which may directly or indirectly enable a party to advance his or her own case or to damage the case for his or her adversary.  The Peruvian Guano case was decided in 1882 and the rule developed and has remained in place, at least as far as the Family Court is concerned, notwithstanding the development of electronic communications and copying and the digital transmission and retention of material that may be of marginal relevance.

The continued existence of the Peruvian Guano approach allows for potential abuses in the course of proceedings to take place.  Relationship property cases often involve efforts by a wealthier or better informed spouse to confine access to information by the poorer or more poorly informed spouse.  Wide ranging discovery obligations with associated opportunities for interlocutory proceedings and appeals may create a risk of injustice by precluding or limiting the prompt disposition of the substantive issue before the Court.  Discovery applications can be used by a “deep pockets” litigant to disadvantage one who is financially stretched, using a strategy of litigation by attrition. In addition, Peruvian Guano type obligations may be additionally onerous where the assets available are limited.

The Peruvian Guano approach, therefore, runs head to head with the discovery reforms that were incorporated into the High Court rules and subsequently into the District Court rules in 2012 and 2014 respectively.

These rules basically provide that initial disclosure must be given alongside pleadings.  Counsel must attempt to agree an appropriate discovery order prior to a first case management conference.  Cooperation between counsel is the order of the day.  The old tactic of holding one’s cards close to one’s chest are now over.  Two forms of discovery order may be made: standard or tailored.  A standard order for discover is narrower than the previous Peruvian Guano test.  The scope of disclosure is confined to documents which:

(1)        Are relied on by the party;

(2)        Adversely affect that party’s case;

(3)        Adversely affect another party’s case – which may be covered by the first category; or

(4)        Support another party’s case.

It is described as an “adverse documents” rule rather than a more wide ranging “relevance based” rule.

Tailored to discovery involves making specific or bespoke orders for discovery which may be wider or narrower than standard discovery.  There is a presumption in favour of tailored discovery in cases:

(1)        Involving allegations of fraud or dishonesty;

(2)        Where the total value of assets or sums in issue exceeds $2.5 million; or

(3)        If the cost of standard discovery would be disproportionately high in comparison to matters at issue in the proceeding.

The 2012 High Court Rules amounted to an overall reform of the entire discovery process.  Although the rules refer to the use of technology and there are provisions in the High Court rules relating to technology use and the definition of the various means by which technology assisted review may take place, the rules reform the entire approach to discovery.  In some jurisdictions discovery reforms, particularly in the field of electronic discovery, are governed by Court devised protocols or practice notes.  Discovery regimes in Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong provide examples.  Rule based changes to discovery regimes are present in England and Canada.

In a Dixon v Kingsley [2015] NZHC 2044 (27 August 2015), Kos J addressed the Family Court discovery regime.  He observed that the reforms provided in the High Court Rules have passed the Family Court by.  He observed that the Peruvian Guano approach “still holds court” under the Family Court Rules.  However, he did observe that the breadth of r 141(1) and the discretion imported by r 141(2A) allows for closer inquiry by the Family Court into the scope of discovery that should be ordered.  He focused upon the words “the Court may order”.  He then considered that because of this it does not follow that a broad relevance based Peruvian Guano type discovery should be ordered and that a tailored approach is permissible and desirable.

He then went on to observe that in the case of J v P [2013] NZHC 557 three qualifying principles for discovery in relationship property cases were identified:

(a)        Relevance to the issue in the proceeding;

(b)        Reasonable discovery;

(c)        That discovery should not be unduly onerous.

Taking these general principles and utilising the wide discretion contained in r 141, Kos J articulated some essential principles governing discovery in relationship property litigation:

(1)        He considered that a robust approach should be taken to discovery consistent with the purposes and principles of the Act.  Those purposes and principles include the need for a just decision but, importantly, require an inexpensive and efficient access to justice.

(2)        That discovery should not be unduly onerous.

(3)        That discovery should be reasonably necessary at the time sought.

(4)        That the scope of discovery should be tailored to the need of the Court to disclose, justly and efficiently, of relationship property issues under the Act.

(5)        More substantial discovery may well be ordered by the Court where it has reason to believe that a party has concealed information or otherwise sought to mislead either the other party or the Court as to the scope of relationship property.  But even in such a case scope of discovery should be limited only to what is required for the Court to fairly and justly determine relationship property rights.

Although the Judge did not specifically state that the principles of reasonableness and proportionality together with counsel cooperation that underpin the 2012 High Court Rules changes, it is clear that he was of the view that at least the spirit of those rules may apply in modified form in relationship property discovery cases.  Although the discovery process involving the development of a discovery plan prior to a case management conference and the utilisation of checklists is neither provided nor stated it seems, at least to this commentator, that such an approach would not be amiss if informally adopted by counsel.  It is recognised that difficulties could well arise given much of the emotional heat and adversarialism that accompanies relationship property cases.  The absence of a specific rule structure for discovery, such as is present in the High Court rules, would make it difficult for counsel to advise or persuade aggressive or contentious clients that a cooperative approach should be adopted, but the decision of Kos J does seem to dilute the potential difficulties accompanying what may appear to be at first glance a very wide and potentially oppressive Peruvian Guano approach.

In the case before him, Kos J had four classes of documents in respect of which discovery was sought.  In one class he made a tailored discovery order, limiting the nature of discovery sought to documents of specific relevance.  In the other cases what was sought were too wide or amounted to non-party discovery by stealth and in one case it was considered, because of difficulties underlying the pleadings, that it was not ripe to make a discovery order.

The decision is particularly helpful because it demonstrates the utilisation of discretionary powers to import a modern approach to discovery involving relevance, reasonableness and proportionality to override the wide scope of discovery that would otherwise be applicable arising from the Peruvian Guano rule.  The case, in the view of this commentator, will be an essential tool available in the Family Court to prevent the oppressive use of discovery in relationship property cases. What will be interesting in future will be the approach of the Court in cases where discovery of large amounts of electronic information is sought and whether Kos J’s “tailored order” approach will be modified to deal with relationship property e-discovery.

17 October 2015

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