Northern Ireland

Taggart brothers win right to trial over £8.5m loans from Ulster Bank

Belfast High Court
Image caption The court heard the brothers were once described as "the richest business people in the country"

Two brothers who appealed a court decision ordering them to pay back more than £8.5m to Ulster Bank have won the right to take their case to full trial.

During the property boom, Michael and John Taggart's building empire was a major success story, but it collapsed in the financial crash in 2008.

The Ulster Bank claims they now owe it more than £8.5m in personal guarantees.

But on Friday a High Court judge ruled the case should not be decided without hearing witness evidence at a trial.

The initial legal proceedings were brought over joint personal guarantees for borrowings by Taggart Holdings Ltd in Northern Ireland and Taggart Homes Ireland Ltd in the Republic of Ireland.

In March last year, Belfast High Court had ruled in favour of the bank, upholding two separate writs against the brothers for the sums of £5m and 4.3m euros.

Profits

Overturning the earlier court decision, Mr Justice Justice McCloskey said this would only have been appropriate if the Ulster Bank case was unanswerable.

He stated: "The degree of confidence which is a pre-requisite to any summary judgment order is lacking."

The brothers dispute the bank's claims, arguing that they fully discharged their contractual obligations and have no liability.

Ruling on their appeal against the earlier verdict, Mr Justice McCloskey set out the scale of their business operation.

The Taggart Group of companies, of which they are sole shareholders, had at one stage a £165m annual turnover.

With construction and investment interests in the UK, Ireland, Europe, the United States and New Zealand, profits rose significantly in 2006.

The court heard that at one stage Michael Taggart described a plan to increase housing sales to 1,000 units a year from 2007, and to achieve an annual turnover in excess of £1bn by 2012.

In 2006, the Group purchased Fraser Estates for a sum variously described as £88m and £100m.

Mr Justice McCloskey recounted how the same year they were described in the business press as "the richest business people in the country".

High-profile

According to their own affidavits, the brothers' turnover in 2006 was £112m.

But two years later the Taggart Group was forced into administration in a high-profile example of the economic downturn.

Lawyers for the Ulster Bank argued that, on the evidence, there was no chance of the brothers making out a real or bona fide defence.

With illness and the stress of getting married cited in response to the claim against them, the judge was told the pair were "grasping at straws".

However, Mr Justice McCloskey held that the defendants had a right to a full trial.

He said: "A vast proliferation of affidavits in this kind of case is no substitute for evidence elicited by examination-in-chief, cross examination and appropriate judicial questioning, all of which will enable the court to assess the veracity of witnesses and to make confident findings of fact.

"There exists, in my view, a veritable goldmine for cross examination."

Stressing that his decision was not a final outcome in the proceedings, he added: "I conclude without hesitation that summary judgment is inappropriate in either action.

"I therefore allow the defendants' appeals," the judge said.

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