It is often said that the family courts are toothless when it comes to enforcing compliance with orders, and there is certainly some truth in that. So it is with interest that we note two recent cases where sentences have been imposed on spouses for disobeying court orders.
The first has been splashed all over the papers, and concerns the ongoing vitriolic battle between Scot Young, the former millionaire property tycoon, and his wife Michelle. The couple were married for 11 years and have 2 daughters, and during their marriage they amassed fortune of around £400m. Back in 2009, in an earlier round of litigation between the pair, Mr Young was order to pay his former wife £27,500 per month in maintenance for herself and their daughters. He has not paid any of it, claiming that he lost all his money in a Russian property deal which collapsed. The arrears of maintenance now amount to around £1m.
Since the original order, Mr Young has been ordered to provide full details of his financial situation to the court and to his former wife, but has repeatedly failed to provide a satisfactory explanation and documentary evidence as to his former and present finances. In 2009, when he failed to provide the High Court with any paperwork to explain what happened to his fortune, he was found guilty of contempt of court and given a suspended six-month jail sentence. In October 2012 Mrs Young’s lawyers asked the court to enforce the jail sentence for his repeated failure to comply.
Mrs Young maintains that her former love has secreted huge wealth overseas in a deliberate ploy to deny her and their daughters their rightful financial support. Mr Young has retaliated saying he has been having health problems as a result of the numbers of private detectives Mrs Young has hired to follow and spy on him. He claims his present lifestyle is being funded by un-named friends and business associates.
Seeing through the smoke-screen of these counter allegations, Mr Justice Moor told Mr Young that his excuses for not providing the court with the required information were “absurd” and “next to useless’”. He jailed him for six months for contempt of court. The judge said Mr Young would serve at least three months but could be freed if he revealed the whereabouts of the missing millions and how his present lifestyle was being funded.
We wait with interest to see whether time in Pentonville prison will encourage Mr Young to come clean, or whether he will simply serve his time and continue on his path of obfuscation and non-disclosure whilst showing up at society bashes on the arm of a model.
The second case, which was in the news recently although not on the front pages, concerns the English court’s view on breaches of overseas court orders. Again, the court considered the flagrant disregard of a court order to be worthy of a sentence of imprisonment, albeit suspended in this instance.
This case concerned a couple who had moved from England to the USA, where they owned and ran a jewellery shop.
After the couple separated, the husband and his father removed everything from the jewellery shop, and the whereabouts of the jewellery or proceeds from its sale has been a mystery ever since. The retail value of the missing items was $4.85m and there was cash in hand of $263,405.
The wife issued divorce proceedings in the US state of Georgia, and obtained an order that the husband should pay her a $2m lump sum, and $4,000 per month until he paid the lump sum. The husband ignored the order, saying he had no money at all. The wife returned to England, registered the order here, and applied in the High Court in London to commit the husband to prison for failure to comply with the order.
The judge was satisfied that the husband had the means to pay the order, and had either refused or been wilfully indifferent to his obligation to pay. He took a dim view of this disregard for the American court order, said he was convinced that jewellery was either stored abroad, or proceeds from selling the jewellery was overseas under control of the husband or his family. As the husband had the means to pay and had failed to do so, the judge sentenced him to six weeks imprisonment, suspended for three months, to allow him time to pay. If he does not, he may well be imprisoned, like Scot Young.
These cases are extreme, and like many that reach the headlines concern the owners of massive wealth, but they do serve to highlight that enforcement of family court orders is an area perhaps deserving to be taken more seriously. We hope these high profile cases serve to show that the family courts will take a strong stance on disobedience to court orders. If you’d like to have a chat about any issue raised in this blog, do give Gail, Adam, Sue or Simon a call on 01223 443333.