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For a Divorce Trial, is $430,000 in Legal Fees Too Much?

For a Divorce Trial, is $430,000 in Legal Fees Too Much?

Anyone who has gone through a divorce will know that legal costs can get out of control. But consider the recent Ontario case of McCabe v Tissot, where the court was asked to rule on whether the husband should pay the wife’s legal fees of $430,000, part of divorce litigation that “financially devastated” both former spouses, and which saw the wife alone rack up almost $1 million in legal fees overall.

The court’s first step was to determine which member of the sparring couple had been the successful party at trial, because under Ontario civil procedure this is essentially the starting-point for determining how costs should be apportioned, although additional factors come into play as well. Both parties claimed that they had been entirely successful on all significant issues.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in addition to disputing her entitlement the husband also took issue with the wife’s dollar-figure: the $430,000 she was claiming was both excessive and disproportionate, in his view. The wife had chosen to endlessly litigate to the point where both parties’ financial stability, and thus the well-being of their son, was in jeopardy.  He said that for his own part, he had been financially ruined by the whole process.

The court, after considering the various circumstances (including the reasonableness of the parties’ positions at trial, the offers to settle they had exchanged, and prior courts orders), agreed that the wife had been more successful overall. But it rejected the notion that she should receive the full costs she was claiming. The court said:

[t]he amount of legal fees spent by the parties on this litigation is astronomical and completely unreasonable. The [wife] has mortgaged her home and has very little equity left as was her evidence at trial and as set out in her sworn Financial Statements. The [husband] also spent an exorbitant amount on legal fees borrowing funds from his parents to finance the first trial. The [wife] alone has spent close to $1 million on legal fees and disbursements. The [husband] borrowed over $393,000 from his parents. The fees spent by the parties are completely disproportionate to the issues before the court.

The court continued:

The parties lost sight of what is reasonable and what is proportionate. The financial devastation suffered by this family will last a lifetime. Most importantly it will once again negatively impact their son….

And further:

…from the spring of 2013 onward conflict ensued and they attended court numerous times, obtaining approximately 41 court orders. Not only did this financially devastate the parties and affect Liam detrimentally as set out in my Reasons, but it also resulted in the use of an inordinate amount of judicial resources. My only hope is that the parties have now come to the realization that the destruction both financially and emotionally was not worth it and they will not become embroiled in further litigation in the future. Only time will tell.

After reviewing all the relevant factors, the court concluded that legal costs in the amount of $125,000 were payable by the husband to the wife in the matter.

For the full text of the decision, see:

McCabe v Tissot, 2016 ONSC 4443 (CanLII)

At Russell Alexander, Family Lawyers our focus is exclusively family law, offering pre-separation legal advice and assisting clients with family related issues including: custody and access, separation agreements, child and spousal support, division of family property, paternity disputes, and enforcement of court orders. For more information, visit us at RussellAlexander.com