Extended Contempt of Court in Family Proceedings

In the case of NB v TS [2013] EWHC 4152 (Fam) the child, ES, was 6 years old. The applicant mother was a British citizen, and the respondent father was born in Egypt. In 2011, the parents and ES travelled to Egypt for a holiday, and ES did not return to England. The mother alleged that whilst they had been in Egypt, the father had secretly moved ES to live with his (the father's) mother. A series of orders were made requiring that the father reveal the actual whereabouts of ES and to procure her return to England. The father had refused to comply with those orders and as a result there had been a series of orders committing him to prison for contempt of court. By the time of the current hearing the father had served two years in continuous custody for contempt. However, there was no evidence that he had committed any actual criminal offence under the law of England and Wales.

The mother issued an application for the father to be committed to prison for contempt of court for a further period for his breach of the relevant orders.  The principal issue that fell to be determined was whether or not the court should impose a further sentence on the respondent father for contempt of court, and, if so, what further sentence should be imposed.

The application would be dismissed

It was settled law that there could lawfully be successive terms of imprisonment for contempt of court for further and repeated breaches of repeated orders. However, the primary maximum sentence that Parliament had fixed for contempt of court was one of two years' imprisonment. The court had to be very cautious not to subvert altogether the will and intention of Parliament by contemplating sentencing for aggregate periods that were more than double that term. There had been no evidence that the father had committed any criminal offence under the law of England and Wales. Further, at the time of the instant hearing the father had served the equivalent of twice the maximum term for contempt of court in these situations. Consequently, it would not be proportionate or justifiable, nor, therefore, lawful, to commit the father to a yet further term of imprisonment, whether of six months or twelve months.

Elizabeth Bettes

Published on 04/04/2014

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