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23 SEP 2013

CONTEMPT: Re L-R [2013] EWCA Civ 1129

(Court of Appeal, McFarlane, Rafferty, Kitchin LJJ, 24 July 2013)

A fact-finding hearing took place during care proceedings in relation to the death of the middle of three children who died when he was 4 years old with a significant head injury, extensive bruising and he was severely emaciated. The mother and her partner (who was the father of the youngest child) were charged with murder, causing or allowing the death of a child and child cruelty/neglect.

The local authority thereafter sought care orders for both siblings on the basis that the threshold had been met due to the children being exposed to significant domestic violence, chronic parental alcohol and drug abuse and the systematic ill treatment and abuse of their brother.

The mother's partner was charged with contempt following his refusal to comply with directions to file witness statements and a response to the schedule of findings sought by the local authority. He had also refused to give evidence despite a direction for him to do so. He was sentenced to 18-months' imprisonment.

On appeal the mother's partner argued that the sentence was neither necessary nor proportionate and that his refusal to co-operate did not have a significant impact on the fact-finding process.

The appeal was dismissed. His refusal to provide evidence during the hearing prevented sophisticated and subtle details of the child's death to be heard by the court and those involved in the planning and caring for the future of the siblings. It was artificial to say that the focus of the hearing was simply to achieve the threshold. The judge stated in clear terms during sentencing that the refusal to comply with court orders created an enormous hindrance to the fact finding exercise.

Based upon the authority of Slade v Slade [2010] 1 FLR 160, the Court of Appeal could only interfere with a sentence for contempt if it concluded it was manifestly excessive or plainly wrong. In all the circumstances this sentence did not fall into that category at all.



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