What is contempt of Court?
Contempt of Court is the act of interfering with the Court process. In family proceedings, contempt can be committed in a number of ways.
For example, failing to comply with a Court Order, failing to provide full and frank disclosure or attempting to move assets to beyond the Court’s reach.
What is the risk?
Contempt is a strict liability offence, which means that a party can be found guilty even if there is no intention to interfere with the administration of justice. Judges in the Family Courts are taking an increasingly stricter approach to parties in contempt. Contempt carries a punishment of up to 2 years imprisonment or an unlimited fine.
Recent Case Law
In Hart v Hart and others, a case recently before the High Court, HHJ Wildblood QC committed Mr Hart to prison for 14 months for his contempt.
As part of the financial settlement in Mr Hart’s divorce proceedings, the Judge ordered that the shares in Drakestown Properties Limited be transferred to Mrs Hart. These shares were being held by Mrs Byrne (Mr Hart’s sister) for the equal and joint benefit of Mr and Mrs Hart.
Mr Hart gave an undertaking to the Court “to take all steps necessary (including, for the avoidance of doubt, the provision of information and documentation and the notification of third parties of the cessation of his interest in Drakestown Properties Ltd) to ensure that the Applicant is forthwith hereafter able to conduct the efficient and effective management of Drakestown Properties Ltd and its assets”. The order also contained a warning that, if he failed to comply with the undertaking, he would be in contempt of court and liable to be imprisoned, fined or to have his assets seized.
Mr Hart delayed the transfer of shares to Mrs Hart, and Mrs Hart had to take proceedings to the Chancery Division of the High Court in order to gain possession of the company. Mr Hart finally exited the company premises and took the majority of the management records with him, making it impossible for Mrs Hart to effectively manage the company. Mr Hart was then ordered to produce specific information in relation to the company. He did not do this.
The Judge considered that the acts of contempt of Mr Hart were so serious that only a sentence of imprisonment was justified. The Judge stated the “having reflected on the contempt that you have committed I have concluded that a financial penalty would be wholly inadequate”.
This case just goes to show how important it is to comply with the Court’s Orders and directions during family proceedings. There is a very real risk that any non-compliance with Court Orders could result in imprisonment or a large fine, which will in turn have a significant effect of your livelihood.