It is one of New Zealand’s biggest-ever divorce settlements, and a small fortune is being spent on accountants and lawyers as it drags on. It involved a claimed (but disputed) $59 million worth of relationship property, as well as a large superannuation fund. Tim and Sophie Biggs are both now living in Australia, and he is involved in agricultural investment. Assets being scrutinised include the $8m-plus former family home on Closeburn Station, overlooking Lake Wakatipu.

Tim and Sophie Biggs were together for six years, married for five, with one child together. Sophie filed an application under the Property (Relationships) Act shortly after their split, and by early 2018 her legal and accounting expenses topped $300,000. She wants a share of the wealth owned by trusts and companies she says Tim Biggs controlled, and to which she added value.

Tim seeks to protect assets which he says represent wealth he held prior to the relationship. Sophie Biggs’ claims rest in part on her having performed “the role of homemaker and caregiver for the couple’s child, by entertaining corporate clients, and by assisting and supporting the husband with his various business ventures”. His version is he was at home a lot himself, sharing that domestic load, his wife was not involved professionally with clients, and work did not consume a lot of his time.

The discovery process here will be of interest to many high-net-worth individuals. Sophie Biggs wanted her accountant to audit how trusts and companies had been established, and how they operated during and after the marriage. The accountant sought not only the usual records like annual accounts, but also bank statements, email correspondence, work papers and general ledgers.

The High Court’s thinking was that discovery must be reasonably necessary, not unduly onerous. Sophie Biggs’ requests were excessive, had led to delays and significant costs, and had fostered an intensely adversarial approach. The Court of Appeal, though, has agreed to more discovery, to ascertain how much time Tim Biggs did put into his business affairs. The Court says it has relevance, given Sophie Biggs’ assertions.

The High Court had things to say about the role of professional advisers, and how counsel need to have proceedings resolved inexpensively and efficiently. This case has lessons for both lawyers and couples involved in high-stakes arguments. Costs in even the biggest of separations need not approach half a million dollars.