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Doncaster MBC v Watson [2011] EWHC 2498 (Fam)

Supplemental judgment in contempt proceedings substituting an order for the immediate and unconditional release of the contemnor in place of a suspended sentence.

 

Neutral Citation Number: [2011] EWHC 2498 (Fam)

Case No: Case No: SE 09 C 01011

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
FAMILY DIVISION

Royal Courts of Justice
Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

Date: 06/10/2011

Before:

SIR NICHOLAS WALL, THE PRESIDENT OF THE FAMILY DIVISION
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Between:

DONCASTER METROPOLITAN BOROUGH COUNCIL Applicant

- and - 

ELIZABETH WATSON Respondent

MR. ANDREW WYNNE (instructed by Legal Services, Doncaster MBC) for the Applicant
MR. ROBERT LITTLEWOOD (instructed by Messrs. Hodge Jones & Allen) for the Respondent

Hearing dates: 15th August 2011 and 1st September 2011
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Approved Judgment

I direct that pursuant to CPR PD 39A para 6.1 no official shorthand note shall be taken of this Judgment and that copies of this version as handed down may be treated as authentic.

SIR NICHOLAS WALL, THE PRESIDENT OF THE FAMILY DIVISION

This judgment is being handed down in open court on 6 October It consists of 2 pages and has been signed and dated by the judge.  The judge hereby gives leave for it to be reported.

Sir Nicholas Wall P:  
1. On 15 August 2011, I found Elizabeth Watson (Ms Watson) in contempt of court, and on 22 August 2011 I committed her to prison for a period of 9 months. On 1 September 2011. Ms Watson applied to purge her contempt. I granted her application, ordered her immediate release and suspended the term of imprisonment which I had imposed on 22 August for a period of two years.

2. My attention has since been drawn to the decision of t he Court of Appeal (Thorpe. Waller and Mantell LJJ) on 8 November 2001, in Harris v. Harris [2001] EWCA Civ 1645. [2002] 1 FLR 248.

3. Mr. Harris was found by Munby J to be in contempt of court and was sentenced to a term of 10 months imprisonment. He then applied to purge his contempt, and, after argument from counsel instructed by the Attorney-General as amicus curiae, Munby J ordered Mr. Harris' immediate release and suspended the balance of his sentence. Mr. Harris appealed to the Court of Appeal on the basis, inter alia, that the judge had no jurisdiction to do what he had done which was, in effect, to impose a fresh sentence of imprisonment, albeit suspended.

4. The Court of Appeal agreed, and allowed Mr. Harris' appeal. Giving the leading judgment, Thorpe LJ said that, on an application to purge contempt a judge could do only one of three things: (1) grant the application and order an immediate release; (2) defer the release to a stated future date; or (3) refuse the application. As Thorpe LJ put it in paragraph 21 of his judgment the judge could only say "yes, no, or not yet".

5. I am plainly bound by this decision, which I am unable to distinguish. It follows that I did not have the power to suspend Ms Watson's sentence and should have ordered her immediate and unconditional release. I therefore substitute that order for the suspended sentence which I passed on 1 September.

6. For the avoidance of doubt, I add two riders. The first is that I am entirely satisfied that the sentence of nine months imprisonment which I passed on 22 August was the correct sentence given the gravity to the contempt. Secondly, I remind Ms Watson and anyone in her position of what Waller LJ said at paragraph 25 of Harris v Harris, whilst expressing his agreement with Thorpe LJ's judgment: -      

"In my view it actually adds very little to the armoury of the court to allow someone to 'conditionally purge' with the remainder of a sentence placed in suspense. Even on an unconditional release, it must be clear to Mr Harris that if he commits a further breach of the orders, the court will in assessing sentence take account of the fact that by his previous promises of good behaviour he was released part way through his ten month sentence. The court is likely to start from the position that he should at least serve that unserved part plus some further period for the contempts committed in breach of those promises, all subject to the overall limit of two years."