Brian Stelfox was once one of Derry’s leading legal practitioners.
But in a written judgment, High Court Judge Mr Justice John O’Hara QC said Stelfox had lied to the court and withheld relevant documents.
Mr Justice O’Hara said he did “not accept that I have been told anything approaching the truth” by the now disgraced solicitor.
Brian and Clair Stelfox married in 1993 and separated in 2013. They have four children who are now aged 26, 23, 21 and 19. Mrs Stelfox was granted a decree nisi on March 2, 2016 which was made absolute on March 10, 2016.
On March 2 a matrimonial agreement which they had reached was made a rule of court by consent.
He agreed to pay £1,250 per month to his ex-wife in respect of their three youngest children until they had completed third level education.
The maintenance would gradually decrease from £3,750 per month to £2,500 to £1,250 to zero.
In his ruling, Mr Justice O’Hara said: “It is important to record at the start that it was known to the parties when they reached their agreement and consented to the orders being made that it was very likely that Mr Stelfox would be made bankrupt, sooner or later, as a result of a disastrous property investment some years earlier in the Republic of Ireland.
“This had led to a judgment against him for more than £3m. It was because of the prospect of bankruptcy that the decree nisi was made absolute barely a week later.
“Notwithstanding the imminence of bankruptcy Mr Stelfox had a well-established solicitor’s practice in Derry and Limavady and the opportunity to continue to earn money to satisfy his obligations to the petitioner.”
In November 2016, Mrs Stelfox issued a summons to have her husband committed to prison for his failure to comply with the agreement and court order to pay £3,750 per month.
For some months Mr Stelfox had been paying the maintenance both late and short but in October 2016 he paid nothing and advised her that from then on there would be no further maintenance payments.
In an affidavit dated December 1, 2016, Mr Stelfox claimed that he had ceased practice as a solicitor from November 1 attributing this to his practice “having become unviable due to the high number of staff employed and declining volumes of work as well as reduced payments from public funds (mostly criminal legal aid) which the practice depended upon”.
Furthermore, he expected to be in a position to file for bankruptcy within weeks. For these reasons he applied for a variation of the maintenance and the remission of the arrears.
In an affidavit dated February 4, 2017 a private investigator, Alan McGowan stated that at the instigation of Mrs Stelfox who did not believe her husband’s claims about ceasing practice, he had phoned Stelfox Solicitors.
He had been able to arrange an appointment to see Mr Stelfox on 10 January 2017 at his office at 14 Main Street, Limavady.
Mr McGowan pretended he wanted Mr Stelfox to act for him on the breakdown of his marriage.
During the course of their meeting Mr Stelfox explained that he had “handed the practice over to three of his lawyers” and that “now I am working for them but part of the reason is I pay my ex £5,000 a month and decided not to pay her anymore.”
He confirmed that he continued to work in both the Limavady and the Derry offices. Further, he suggested that the three solicitors who he had “handed over” his practice to knew from his sister, also a lawyer, that they would have to pay money back to him when he called on them for it.
Ms Gillian Wilson, a cousin of Mrs Stelfox, stated in an affidavit dated 3 February 2017 that on 5 December 2016 she too had rung the number ending in …7200.
It was answered as “CMS Solicitors.” When she asked for an appointment (not using her own name) with the respondent she was given one in the Derry office.
On 9 December 2016 she rang again, using another name different to her own, and was given an appointment with the respondent on 12 December in the Limavady office.
Mr Stelfox was adjudicated bankrupt on 1 June 2017. He was discharged from bankruptcy on 12 September 2018. By then he had discharged in April 2017 the arrears of maintenance. Since spring 2017 he had paid no maintenance at all to the petitioner.
On 16 June 2017 Mr Stelfox swore an affidavitd about his employment since 1 November 2016, the date on which he had previously sworn he had ceased working.
In this affidavit he said that from “in or about 1 November 2016” he had successfully obtained employment with Ms Kerry Connolly trading as CMS Solicitors at a monthly salary of £2,000 net.
He claimed however that his relationship with her had “disintegrated” to the extent that after only 6 months he
had no option but to terminate his employment on 12 April 2017.
He swore that he had received nothing more from her than his monthly salary and that “despite strenuous efforts” he had been unable to find gainful employment since 12 April.
At no point in the affidavit did he explain his failure to refer to this employment in his affidavit of 19 December 2016 nor did he seek to explain his various comments to the private investigator including those about his ex-wife.
Said Mr Justice O’Hara: “Mr Stelfox’s position is made worse by the fact that he withheld in discovery as being irrelevant a written contract of employment with CMS solicitors which he had signed.
“This showed that he had agreed a 5 year contract. In the first year he was to be paid £25,000 plus expenses to include the running of a car.
“In the second year he was to be paid £40,000 net plus 30% of the net profits of the practice. After that his salary was to be indexed linked, year on year.
“His oral evidence that he regarded the document as irrelevant can only be regarded as a lie, especially coming from an experienced solicitor.
“He tried at all times to hide this employment relationship and the income he received from it as part of his efforts to deceive the court and deny the petitioner her maintenance.
“The contract was only produced when Ms Connolly of CMS was subpoenaed by the petitioner to attend the High Court as part of these proceedings.
“It also emerged in evidence that despite the suggestion that he was only an employee of CMS, he had paid to them over £50,000 in three payments between December 2016 and March 2017.”
The senior judge said that evidence before him “satisfies me beyond any doubt that at certain points in time,
and certainly around 2016 and 2017, Mr Stelfox had access to funds, probably significant funds, which he attempted to hide or wash by putting them through” another person’s bank account.
Not only did he owe his wife money, he had a “huge judgment against him and creditors were owed money by his practice”.
As a result of the maintenance agreement, Mrs Stelfox effectively became the owner of 2 Columba Terrace in Derry.
Said Mr Justice O’Hara: “I am satisfied that Mr Stelfox behaved at least shabbily, if not dishonestly, over that property to the extent that Mrs Stelfox found that he had accrued rent arrears of £22,000 against the
property which he had not disclosed at the time of the ancillary relief hearing.”
He added: “Mr Stelfox’s conduct in this case is all the more despicable because he is an experienced practising solicitor.
“If he is not punished for contempt, who will be?
“Nobody knows or should know better than practising lawyers what the consequences of disregarding court orders are.
“In fixing a sentence for this contempt I have considered whether the sentence should be suspended, partly because I feel constrained by the prospect that the longer Mr Stelfox is imprisoned for, the less likely is the petitioner to receive any of the payments which I have ordered.
“At no point however has he accepted or apologised or shown any remorse for his actions.
“Rather he has tried to brazen out the case.
“In the circumstances I cannot impose a sentence shorter than three months in prison.”
Stelfox was ordered to present himself to officers at Laganside Courthouse to be taken into custody.Tags: