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Family Law

The leading authority on all aspects of family law

12 AUG 2014

Is the Family Court committed to committal?

Charlotte Sanders

Assistant solicitor

Is the Family Court committed to committal?
The jurisdiction of England and Wales is renowned for its provision for the weaker party in financial remedy proceedings ancillary to a divorce. However, what goes hand in hand with this, and what is equally important, is the emphasis judges here place on the importance of proper disclosure. As such, it is one of the fundamental principles of the family law system that there should be full and frank disclosure, and it is enshrined in the pre-action protocol (annexed to Practice Direction 9A of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010)).

That said, it is all very well for this disclosure principle to exist in the abstract, but what happens if a party does not comply with this obligation? A family law practitioner will be all too familiar with persistent chasing in correspondence for disclosure and the threatening of court applications, until finally an application for disclosure has to be made (often with penal notices attached). Sadly even a court order does not always make a persistent non-discloser disclose. This is when the powers of committal can come into play.

Procedure

An order for committal is an order of last resort, ie it should not be used if a less draconian remedy would provide a satisfactory solution. In order to apply for committal, an order must have been breached, and that order must have had a penal note attached (as specified in FPR 2010, r 37.9(1)). The procedure for applying for committal is set out in r 37 and PD 37A of the FPR 2010. Also, in May 2013 the President of the Family Division gave guidance on committal applications, mainly dealing with the presumption that committal hearings should be heard in public.

Broadly speaking, an application on Form D11 must be made, with a statement in support, setting out each breach and each warning. There must also be a notice to the respondent warning of the consequences of a committal order and the consequences of not attending the hearing. The application must then be personally served on the respondent, and they should have 14 days’ notice before the hearing. The burden of proof is on the applicant, and it must be proved beyond reasonable doubt that the respondent: (a) has not done what he or she was ordered to do; and (b) that it was in the respondent’s power to do it.

The reason for this strict procedure is due to the draconian nature of committal as a sanction, and its infringement on a person’s human rights. This is recognised in FPR 2010 PD 37A, para 8, which enshrines that, 'In all cases the Convention rights of those involved should particularly be borne in mind'.

Recent cases

Given the high hurdle that must be surmounted to achieve a committal order, are they ever used in practice? This article will look at a few examples in the last few years.

Zuk v Zuk [2012] EWCA Civ 1871, [2013] 2 FLR 1466

A circuit judge in the Sheffield County Court sentenced Mr Zuk to 9 months in prison for failing to pay a lump sum. Mr Zuk appealed, and the sentence was drastically reduced to 6 weeks. This case does not demonstrate that those in contempt can get away with light sentences, but rather it demonstrates the importance of bearing in mind how punitive this sanction is, and the constant balance that must be struck between punishing someone in contempt and protecting their human rights. Mr Zuk in the county court had been a litigant in person, and there was no evidence to show that he had had a chance to obtain legal representation. As such, Thorpe LJ warned that a judge must take 'the greatest care to ensure that all the safeguards provided by statute are duly observed'.

Young v Young [2013] EWHC 34 (Fam), [2014] 1 FLR 269

In this well-known case, Mr Justice Moore sentenced Mr Young to 6 months’ imprisonment (one half of which was to be served in custody) for failing to provide full and frank disclosure. However, in order to get to the committal stage, Mrs Young had been before nine different High Court judges, with a number of different applications. She commenced her applications in June 2008 and committal was only ordered in January 2013. Although committal was ultimately ordered, the lengthy and costly process Mrs Young had to go through might be enough to put off an applicant dealing with a non-disclosing respondent, even if that respondent should ultimately be committed.
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Thursfield v Thursfield [2013] EWCA Civ 840, [2014] 1 FLR 389

Although a civil decision, the Court of Appeal dealt with issues of non-disclosure relating to a divorce. A financial agreement, pursuant to a divorce, was reached in Michigan, USA. The husband failed to comply with the terms of the agreement, and the wife obtained a breach of contract judgment against him. The wife sought to enforce this judgment in England, and freezing and disclosure orders were made against the husband. The husband failed to comply, and the wife applied to commit him. The court found him in contempt and committed him to prison for 24 months. The husband appealed and the Court of Appeal dismissed this, quoting Jakson LJ in JSC BTA Bank v Solodchenko [2011] EWCA Civ 1241where he stated that 'where there is a continuing failure to disclose relevant information, the court should consider imposing a long sentence, possibly even the maximum of two years, in order to encourage future cooperation by the contemnor'.

Ball v Shepstone [2013] EWCC 6 (Fam)

In a very short judgment, the husband was found in contempt of court for failing to comply with an order to produce his Form E. In breach of an order of the court, the respondent had not produced his Form E two weeks after it was due. He was sentenced to fourteen days in prison, although this was suspended for 11 days to encourage him to produce the disclosure in the meantime.

Hope v Krejci [2014] EWHC B5 (Fam)

In this case the wife applied in January 2014 for committal against her husband for breaching an order made in July 2012, requiring him to transfer to her a motorbike and two cars. Mr Justice Bodey held that he was satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the husband was in contempt for failing to transfer the vehicles to the wife, as required in the court order. Bodey J committed the husband to prison for two months, but suspended the sentence for two months to allow the husband to make a payment of £16,000, the monetary equivalent of the vehicles. The husband had tried to argue that he should pay this amount into an escrow account, while he appealed to the Court of Justice of the European Union. However, Bodey J did not allow this, holding that due to the husband’s litigation history, it would add to uncertainty and costs for the wife, and there was no guarantee the husband would make the payment into an escrow account.


Prest [forthcoming]

Most recently, in August 2014, Moylan J ordered that Mr Prest was in breach of an order that he should pay Mrs Prest a lump sum of £17.5m, and annual child maintenance payments of £300,000. Moylan J sentenced Mr Prest to 4 weeks in prison, albeit suspended for 3 months in order to encourage him to meet the outstanding payments. In the seminal case of Prest v Petrodel it was held that Mr Prest had the funds and the means to pay his wife, thus his non-payment meant he was in contempt of court.

Comment

Although still a measure of last resort, it seems from these cases that the Family Court is becoming increasingly willing to commit those in breach of financial remedy orders. While a careful balance must be struck at all times between eroding the fundamental human rights of an individual versus appropriate sanctions for flouting a court order, it seems that the court is striking the right balance. There is always a risk of a pyrrhic victory when dealing with serial non-disclosers, however concrete examples of respondents going to prison may encourage others in a similar position, whether regarding disclosure, payments or otherwise, to comply in the first place. This deterrent would not only save the courts’ valuable resources, but would also minimise the stress and uncertainty for the applicant involved.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.
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