I have recently been dealing with children cases involving contempt of Court, which as many people know is more often than not dealt with by the Courts by imposing a custodial sentence.
Contempt of Court is an interference with the administration of justice. This may take several forms but each of them will result in justice itself not being properly carried out. It is for this reason that contempt of Court is seen as such a serious offence and which can result in a custodial sentence.
A party’s conduct within a child abduction case may be treated as contempt of Court if they interfere with the course of justice, in particular on-going legal proceedings regardless of intent to do so. Contempt carries a punishment of up to 2 years in prison or an unlimited fine.
In my experience, and after visiting the Royal Courts of Justice on numerous occasions over the past three weeks, Family Judges are increasingly taking a robust approach when dealing with a party who is in contempt. Non-cooperation may mean non-compliance with Court Orders, attempting to mislead the Court or attempting to place assets beyond the Court’s reach. Such behaviour often increases costs for the other party as their solicitors chase responses, attempt to trace assets or try to enforce Orders. Unsurprisingly, Judges frown on those who believe that they are above the law.
I have noticed that grandparents often find themselves in a particularly difficult situation. They are often torn between the wishes of their children and making decisions ultimately which are in the best interests of their grandchildren. Last year Mr Justice Keehan decided at the High Court of Justice that the grandparents and aunt of a five-year-old girl at the centre of a custody battle were in contempt of court having failed to provide information as to her whereabouts and were sentenced to 12 days jail as punishment.
The question remains to what extent is it helpful to jail the (often old and weak) grandparents? I agree that ultimately the best interests of the child concerned are paramount and punishing anyone involved in withholding information from the court who’s priority is to protect the child, is a good thing. The case mentioned above was helpful in clarifying that in fact, once the family were jailed the child was found. Although harsh, it seems to have worked. But to what extent does this work for other cases? Well, we shall soon see.
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