Contempt is a remedy used to prevent conduct that obstructs or abuses the administration of justice. In the context of Litigation, it is most commonly associated with the compliance of orders made by the civil court. Many people do not realise the extent of the court’s power and will often try to avoid complete compliance with order of the court.
There are many different forms of contempt, but most can be grouped into two main categories;
1) contempt by disobedience
2) contempt by interference
An application for contempt is usually started by the victim of the contempt but on rare occasions the court may make an order by its own initiative, such as in instances of misbehaviour in the court room.
The basis of a contempt application must be an order headed by a penal notice which makes it clear to the victim that if they disobey the order, they could face contempt proceedings. Such proceedings may involve a prison sentence. Even in a civil context, all allegations of contempt must be proved to the criminal standard.
The cost and the relative difficulty to obtain an order means that contempt orders are not commonly made by judges. It is also clear that the threat of an application for contempt is very often enough to force a litigant to comply.
A prospective contemnor may be given a chance to purge their contempt before a sentence is passed and simple non-compliance with an order does not necessarily signify contempt. For an order to be made, ‘mens rea’ (a mental element) must also be proved. For example, the contemnor must know that by acting in such a way, they are in breach of the order.
In a recent case, Reynolds and others v Long  EWHC 3535 Ch it was held that even in a situation where Police had confiscated documents that had been ordered to be provided in civil proceedings, a litigant is still expected to try and make an effort to comply with the order. Furthermore, it was held in that case that even though the contemnor had been suffering from an apparent mental illness, the court still considered that the Respondent had a lack of contrition for the proceedings and therefore despite suffering from mental problems for two years (including suicide attempts), an order of contempt with a sentence of 8-month imprisonment was made.
The punishment for contempt varies and can be a prison sentence (maximum of two years), an unlimited fine, or sequestration of property. The sentence is at the complete discretion of the court, however where the behaviour has been consistent and extensive in severely flouting the order of the court, then imprisonment should be considered. The breach of injunctions and signing false statements of truth are considered the most serious offences in this situation.
After an order for contempt has been made, a litigant can still purge their contempt by apologising for their behaviour and/or complying with any order that is outstanding.
In summary, the temptation to avoid complying with court orders by failing to disclose all assets, doing something prohibited by a court or by making a false statement of truth could land you behind bars.
If you would like to speak to a solicitor about any legal issue you might have, contact Griffin Law today.