$50m Will forgery: contempt proceedings allowed
The High Court has given permission for contempt proceedings to be brought against a party, Garish Patel, and the witnesses of his mother's Will. This follows a ruling in February 2017 that Garish had forged his mother's Will in order to inherit the entirety of her $50m stake in the family's palm oil plantation.
Garish, a successful chartered accountant and arbitrator, was found to have forged the Will in order to gain a tactical advantage in an ongoing family feud over their $200m palm oil business.
Mrs Patel died in September 2011, leaving four sons. Her son, Yashwant Patel, inherited her entire Estate under her 1986 Will. Garish produced a further Will which he claimed his mother had signed in 2005, leaving everything to him.
The Court found that the 2005 Will was a forgery, after forensic evidence showed that Garish had utilised an old signature of his mother's and fashioned the Will around it. The Judge delivered a damning judgment, in which he found Garish to be 'a self-confessed liar' who believed 'the truth is a flexible concept…to be fashioned according to his own interests and requirements'.
The brothers applied to the court to bring contempt proceedings against Garish and witnesses, on the grounds that they had been part of a conspiracy to mislead the Court because they had made knowingly false statements about the execution of the 2005 Will.
The brothers had also brought a private prosecution against Garish for forgery and attempting to pervert the course of justice.
The respondents opposed the application, arguing that the case had only been brought out of animosity. They claimed that they had not been warned of the possibility of contempt proceedings, and that the private prosecution and the contempt proceedings should not both go ahead.
To prevent vindictive litigants using proceedings to harass those that they have a grievance against, the court considers contempt applications carefully. Such an application should not be allowed where the case is weak or where the contempt, if proved, is trivial. The court must be satisfied that there is a strong prima facie case for contempt, that it is in the public interest for the case to be brought and that the proceedings are proportionate and in accordance with the overriding objective.
The Court found that all the elements were satisfied.
The Judge acknowledged the animosity between the parties, but found that the application should be allowed. Following the February judgment, there was a strong prima facie case for contempt. The lies had not been merely peripheral to the case, the respondents had put forward a deliberately false claim, and therefore it was unequivocally in the public interest to bring contempt proceedings against them. If the respondents did not agree with the allegations against them, they would have the opportunity to demonstrate their innocence during the proceedings. Given the exceptionally serious nature of the allegations, the contempt proceedings were proportionate and in accordance with the overriding objective.
The Court dismissed the respondents' objections. Garish and the witnesses had been given clear warnings about the risk of contempt proceedings if they brought a false claim. The fact that the brothers were also bringing a private prosecution was not a bar to contempt proceedings, as long as there was no double punishment.