What kind of family justice system sends an 83 year old man to prison?

finances and divorce

I’ve written at least five previous posts in relation to the proceedings between Mr and Mrs Hart, probably more than any other case. That in itself is a possible indication of the litigious nature of the case, and of the failure of the parties, or one of them, to resolve matters in an amicable fashion.

The latest in the long line of judgments in Hart v Hart made the headlines in at least one national newspaper last week. Particularly newsworthy was the fact that the judgment concerned the committal to prison of an 83 year old. How could it be that a family court judge made such an order?

To answer the question we must of course look back at the history of the case, albeit that there is certainly not enough room in this post to go into the details (anyone seeking further details is referred to my earlier posts, in particular this one and this one).

The proceedings began in 2011, but it wasn’t until June 2015 that His Honour Judge Wildblood QC made a final financial remedies order. As he explained:

“Significant delay and expense were caused in the interlocutory stages of the proceedings by Mr Hart’s failure to give adequate information or comply with court orders. At the substantive hearing before me his evidence was manifestly unsatisfactory, his disclosure was shown to be profoundly inadequate and I rejected many of his contentions. He is an exceptionally poor and untruthful witness.”

Under that final order Mrs Hart was to receive/retain assets with a combined value of approximately £3.5 million. As part of that award the order provided for the transfer to Mrs Hart the shares of Mr Hart in a company called Drakestown Properties Ltd, and Mr Hart gave an undertaking to the court to take the necessary steps to render that transfer of shares effective. Unfortunately, as Judge Wildblood explained:

“Mr Hart has done his utmost to prejudice Mrs Hart and to put her under pressure by failing to comply with his undertaking and with the subsequent enforcement orders that I have made.”

In particular, Mr Hart delayed the transfer without justification, Mrs Hart had to take proceedings in the Chancery Division to gain possession of the company premises, and when Mr Hart and his staff did finally vacate the premises they stripped out all of the management records of the company, thereby making it impossible for Mrs Hart to manage the company efficiently or effectively. It was therefore necessary for Mrs Hart to take further proceedings to force Mr Hart to provide information that was essential to the running of the company. Orders were made requiring Mr Hart to provide information and documentation, but he failed to comply with them.

Finally, Mrs Hart was left with no alternative but to apply to the court for Mr Hart’s committal to prison for contempt. Dealing with the application Judge Wildblood said:

“Nobody wishes to see an 83-year-old man … facing a committal application. However, despite frequent court hearings, orders and the clearest possible warnings … Mr Hart has not done what he was ordered to do or what he undertook to do. Enough is now enough. As I will explain he is now in very serious and sustained contempt of court.”

The question that remained was, of course, what the penalty for the contempt should be. Judge Wildblood told Mr Hart:

“…so serious are these acts of contempt that only a sentence of imprisonment is justified. Having reflected on the contempt that you have committed I have concluded that a financial penalty would be wholly inadequate. Having given you so much opportunity to remedy your breaches, there would be no justification at all for a suspension of the inevitable prison sentence that I must now impose, as I warned you … a year ago. Orders of the court and the rule of law must be observed.”

Accordingly, Mr Hart was sentenced to an immediate term of 14 months imprisonment, a very significant penalty.

I cannot leave the case without mention of one of the mitigating factors that Judge Wildblood listed, and that surely serves both as a lesson to Mr Hart, and as a warning to others who may be tempted not to comply with the will of the court:

“The effect of these proceedings is that Mr Hart has not only lost some of the money which he holds so dear, but he has also experienced the loss of his relationship with his former wife and children. From the upbeat, proud and canny business man that I first saw three years ago, he is now an isolated and sad man seemingly unable to enjoy for his remaining years the millions of pounds that he still owns.”

Quite thought-provoking.

So the answer to the question posed by the title to this post is: the kind of system that expects all parties to play by its rules, that gives them an opportunity to do so (some might say too many opportunities), but that ultimately is prepared to draw a line when a party refuses to comply. The system treats (or should treat) all parties equally, irrespective of such matters as their age (assuming, of course, that they do not have some age-related infirmity relevant to their ability to comply with the rules). In short, a system that is fair, but that has the power to enforce compliance with its rules and decisions.

The report of the initial committal hearing is here, and the report of the sentencing hearing is here.

Photo by Michael Coghlan via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

View more from this author

6 comments

Paul Massey - March 21, 2018 at 2:18pm

I find it astonishing that the same system can commit a recalcitrant 83 year old man in a financial matter for contempt, yet repeatedly and consistently fails to enforce orders regarding contempt against alienating parents that repeatedly fail to comply.

In 2015 only 1.2% of all orders were enforced.

This man should probably have gone to jail, but it does rather seem that we care more about contempt in financial matters than in those involving children.

spinner - March 21, 2018 at 10:21pm

The family law system in the UK is so pathetic and fake, quite prepared to send an 83 year old man to prison for defying the court over finances but literally millions of women have got away with much worse with much deeper and longer lasting consequences for children and nothing at all is done to them, women just ignore orders and the court just waits till the man gives up due to him realising the UK family courts and the lawyers involved in them are just a waste of space.

Steve - March 22, 2018 at 8:07am

I note that he can get out of prison whenever he chooses. This doesn’t seem to be reported anywhere (except in the judgement).

Cameron Paterson - March 22, 2018 at 2:54pm

That detail was omitted for brevity. But you’re right: anyone found to be in contempt can ‘purge’ it before they have completed their sentence by doing what the court has asked them to do

Stitchedup - March 23, 2018 at 2:07pm

Interesting to see Stowe are now commenting on criminal law.

Cameron Paterson - March 23, 2018 at 3:03pm

It’s borderline. You can be sent to prison for contempt of court in a civil law family case too

Leave a comment