Strickland heir’s right to secret files confirmed by Appeals Court

Hornyhold-Strickland, the second largest shareholder in Allied Newspapers insisted that his late aunt was persuaded to change her will in 1979 by her executors - the late Guido de Marco and Joseph Ganado - but intended for him to be the rightful owner

Robert Hornyold-Strickland (right) and his wife Dierdre Strickland
Robert Hornyold-Strickland (right) and his wife Dierdre Strickland

The Court of Appeal has overturned an earlier decision by the courts on the refusal by the Strickland Foundation, to release documents of the late Mabel Strickland to her heir, Robert Hornyold-Strickland.

The court, presided by Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi, Judge Joseph Micallef and Judge Tonio Mallia, said all files passed on to the Foundation must now be disclosed to the courts and to the heir.

Hornyold-Strickland, the second largest shareholder in Allied Newspapers, insists his late aunt was persuaded to change her will in 1979 by her testamentary executors – the late Prof. Guido de Marco and Prof. Joseph Ganado – while he was living in England. He has been engaged in a court battle with their sons – the Nationalist MP Mario de Marco and Ganado Advocates partner Max Ganado – to release Strickland’s legal files, which he says will prove that his aunt had intended him to be the rightful owner of the Foundation’s 78% shareholding in Allied Newspapers.

Hornyold-Strickland seeks to have the irregular 78% majority shareholding returned to the estate, claiming that Strickland’s key assets were improperly diverted into the control of De Marco and Ganado.

Hornyold-Strickland also insists that files relating to the improper transfer in 2010 of the majority shareholding in Allied Newspapers to the Strickland Foundation, are also being withheld. These would include a valid instrument of transfer, and details of dividend payments on those shares since Strickland’s death.

“Essential files, that would help to shed light on Miss Strickland’s actual succession planning process and her intentions for her Strickland legacy, have been persistently withheld by the original executors, and now, even by their sons and the Strickland Foundation,” Hornyold-Strickland said.

“In deliberately withholding these files, these people are interfering with the Court’s ability to deliver justice in relation to the legitimate disputes concerning Miss Strickland’s estate together with the proper ownership of the majority shareholding of the Allied Newspapers.”

The defendants argued that the files could not be handed over to the heir because of legal privilege the advocates owed to the deceased client.

But the Court of Appeal ruled that “contrary to a common misconception, the relationship of professional confidentiality is intended not to protect lawyers but to protect their clients only.”

The Court of Appeal said that client privilege could not be invoked in matters of inheritance and that the sole heir effectively stepped into the shoes of Mabel Strickland upon her death – making the heir ‘the client’, and therefore within his rights to request full disclosure of all the family documents withheld by the defendants.

“I am encouraged that the judges upheld our appeal and stated that the Strickland Foundation’s submissions were incorrect. The Court stated that the ‘rules of procedure must be enforced to assist the case in question’ to move forward in its search for the truth and that the Court’s understanding helps to achieve the necessary aims and that nothing should be concealed that is needed to achieve those objectives,” Hornyold-Strickland said.

The defendants – the Strickland Foundation, Allied Newspapers Ltd and the MFSA, which was subsequently joined into the case – were ordered to adhere to the judgement and that Hornyold-Strickland’s claim for the files and documents be met.

“Perhaps, finally, we will see whether a valid instrument of transfer actually exists to support the 2010 transfer of the majority shareholding in Allied Newspapers to the Strickland Foundation and how Allied Newspapers can justify having previously paid many millions of euros in so-called dividends directly to the Strickland Foundation when it was not even a registered shareholder,” Hornyold-Strickland said.

“I sincerely hope that the defendants will now stop playing any more legal games and will abide by the Court of Appeal’s very clear judgement.”