This week, we are taking a look at what can happen in family proceedings if an individual thwarts court orders and is held in contempt of court.
Being held in contempt of court can invoke draconian consequences for litigants, however the more draconian consequences such as committal to prison have rarely been applied in the family court. Recently, an 83-year-old property developer was jailed for contempt of court after obstructing his financial settlement with his ex-wife. This is a timely reminder of the Court’s powers and sadly, how acrimonious litigation can entrench an individual to such an extent that they are not able to move on with their lives.
The proceedings began in 2011, but it wasn’t until June 2015 that His Honour Judge Wildblood QC made a final financial remedies order. As he explained, “Significant delay and expense were caused in the interlocutory stages of the proceedings by Mr Hart’s failure to give adequate information or comply with court orders. At the substantive hearing before me his evidence was manifestly unsatisfactory, his disclosure was shown to be profoundly inadequate and I rejected many of his contentions. He is an exceptionally poor and untruthful witness.”
In 2015, Mr Hart was then ordered to pay his former spouse a total of £3.5 million, from an estimated fortune of £9.4 million, and also to hand over his controlling shares in a West Midlands property firm. The wife received the shares and became the owner of the company. However, the husband subsequently, said Stephen Wildblood QC, “done his utmost to frustrate her ability to run it efficiently and effectively” because he “bitterly” resented the Court’s award.
As Judge Wildblood explained, “Mr Hart has done his utmost to prejudice Mrs Hart and to put her under pressure by failing to comply with his undertaking and with the subsequent enforcement of orders that I have made.” In particular, Mr Hart delayed the transfer without justification. Mrs Hart had to take proceedings in the Chancery Division to gain possession of the company premises, and when Mr Hart and his staff did finally vacate the premises they stripped out all of the management records of the company, thereby making it impossible for Mrs Hart to manage the company efficiently or effectively.
He was later ordered, on two separate occasions, to provide her with business information but failed to do so. Judge Wildblood told the elderly developer, “…so serious are these acts of contempt that only a sentence of imprisonment is justified. Having reflected on the contempt that you have committed, I have concluded that a financial penalty would be wholly inadequate. Orders of the court and the rule of law must be observed”.
Mrs Hard had, the Judge continued, made “every effort” to avoid having him committed to prison. He had been motivated by resentment and had demonstrated no remorse for disobeying the orders the Judge declared. Judge Wildblood added, “A prison sentence will have a very marked effect on him. [He] is now aged 83 and nobody wants to see a man of that age going to prison unless it is genuinely necessary.” Accordingly, Mr Hart was sentenced to an immediate term of 14 months imprisonment, a very significant penalty.
Judge Wildblood further discussed the effects of such a temptation not to comply with the will of the court, “The effect of these proceedings is that Mr Hart has not only lost some of the money which he holds so dear, but he has also experienced the loss of his relationship with his former wife and children. From the upbeat, proud and canny businessman that I first saw three years ago, he is now an isolated and sad man, seemingly unable to enjoy for his remaining years the millions of pounds that he still owns.”
Judge Wildblood concluded his judgment by highlighting that, although both parties funded their own legal costs, “the courts in which this unnecessarily protracted litigation has been fought out for the past six-and-a-half years and all those working within it (including myself) are funded from the public purse. This case has placed an immense burden on limited public funds, a burden that will continue now as a result of your incarceration.”
At Cambridge Family Law Practice, we advise and encourage parties to work within the constraints of the legal rules and procedures. This judgment is a timely reminder that where court orders in divorce cases are persistently and deliberately breached, the court has very draconian powers to ensure orders are enforced but also that the ultimate cost of this behaviour extends beyond the financial hit.
If you have any questions about enforcement of court orders and contempt of court or any other family law matter, you can call us on 01223 443333 and make an appointment to speak to Simon, Adam, Tricia, Sue or Gail.