In his 1852-3 novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens wrote: “Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means.”
Do cases like Jarndyce v Jarndyce still exist in the modern legal era? Surely not? And yet there are still cases of remarkable complexity and staggering longevity rumbling through the courts.
One such saga is the Re Jahre litigation, which must be among the longest-running cases in legal history, with the initial hearing having taken place back in 1941.
Next month will see the start of what could prove to be the final chapter in this major action. The Cayman Islands trial, which has been set down for several months, circles around the recovery of assets alleged to belong to the estate of Anders Jahre, deceased.
To make sure this does not turn into a Jarndyce v Jarndyce repeat, a recap of the facts seem necessary.
Jahre was a Norwegian shipping tycoon reputed to be enormously wealthy, and famous (or infamous) as the inventor of the whaling factory ship. The heart of the dispute is the question of whether Jahre owned the valuable bearer shares of a Panamanian shipping company – something he always denied.
In 1941, when an oil tanker owned by the Panamanian company was seized by the Allies, the State of Norway embarked on an attempt to prove that Jahre was the owner.
The dispute dragged on inconclusively until 1947. In the early 1950s, Norway launched a further investigation that also ended inconclusively. In 1979, however, the Norwegian tax authorities initiated an audit of Jahre’s corporate and personal financial affairs and eventually, in 1983, made a retroactive assessment against Jahre on the basis that he owned the Panamanian company. By which point it was too late – Jahre had died the previous year, aged 90.
This is where the English courts come in and it starts to get even more complicated. Jahre’s estate appealed the tax decision and in 1984 a request was issued by the Norwegian court to the English High Court, seeking the deposition of bankers resident in England who were said to have relevant information. This, of course, led to extensive litigation in the English courts.
In the meantime the Norwegian National Tax Committee upheld the tax assessment of Jahre’s accounts in 1990. The Jahre estate, therefore, decided to try to recover Jahre’s allegedly hidden offshore assets. This led to new proceedings in 1994 against more than 80 defendants being launched in England, Norway and the Cayman Islands.
The Cayman Islands proceedings eventually went to the Privy Council as Wahr-Hansen v Attorney General of the Cayman Islands (2001).
Several sets of proceedings in Norway continued until 2004, involving more than one trip to the Norwegian Supreme Court and Court of Appeal.
That brings the story up to date and to the launch of the latest proceedings in the Cayman Islands. This new chapter opened in 2004 and represents a further attempt by the Jahre estate to recover assets allegedly belonging to Jahre.
In 2007, the Cayman court ruled that the proceedings did not amount to an attempt by the Norwegian tax authorities to enforce a Norwegian penal law in the Cayman Islands. That decision paved the way for the current trial due to begin in October.
With the case now just weeks away, half a dozen barristers from Fountain Court Chambers, One Essex Court, Serle Court Chambers and Wilberforce Chambers are sunk in preparations for what is one of the most complex trust and fraud litigations to ever involve the English bar.
But these six barristers are not the only counsel to have been involved. Over the years a cluster of leading English counsel and law firms have acted in this case. These include former bar council chair Geoffrey Vos QC of 3 Stone Buildings and the late Mr Justice Hart in the late 1980s before he became a judge.
All those who have put years of work into this modern day Jarndyce v Jarndyce will be watching its hopeful conclusion with bated breath.