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Wood v Collins [2006] EWCA Civ 743

Unduly lenient sentence increased for breach of non-molestation and occupation order.

Court of Appeal: Thorpe and Gage LJJ and Hedley J (11 May 2006)

Unduly lenient sentence increased for breach of non-molestation and occupation order.

Miss Wood and Mr Collins had a relationship for two and a half years which ended in September 2005; they had a daughter, aged almost one, who lived with her mother. Following the breakdown of the relationship, Miss Wood sought a non-molestation order against Mr Collins and an occupation order forbidding him from entering, re-entering, visiting or loitering in the vicinity of her home. She alleged that Mr Collins had sent her abusive text messages and harassed her in a number of different ways.

In November 2005, a deputy district judge made an order, granting cross-injunctions against each party, and attached powers of arrest to the orders. Following the making of that order, Miss Wood alleged that Mr Collins continued to harass her in such as way as to be in breach of the injunction made against him. She applied for a committal order, and Mr Collins was arrested.

At a hearing in January 2006, six allegations made by Miss Wood concerning threatening and abusive behaviour by Mr Collins were found proved; accordingly, the judge found Mr Collins to be in breach of the injunction made against him and sentenced him to a total of six months' imprisonment.

On an appeal by Mr Collins, the judge dismissed the appeal against the findings of breach of injunction, but allowed the appeal against sentence by reducing the period of imprisonment from six months to 28 days, thereby permitting the immediate release of Mr Collins. Further, the judge suspended the sentence on condition that Mr Collins did not enter a defined area in which Miss Wood lived and worked for the remainder of the period of the injunction.

Miss Wood appealed on the single ground that the sentence was, in all the circumstances, unduly lenient. A procedural point raised on behalf of Mr Collins was that Miss Wood required permission to appeal before the appeal could proceed.

Held, allowing the appeal to the extent of substituting three months for the sentence of 28 days, that the sentence was unduly lenient.

The latest breach of the injunction, though less serious than the previous breaches, followed a pattern of abusive harassment of Miss Wood by Mr Collins. In reducing the sentence of six months imposed by the district judge to 28 days, the judge had made it clear that any subsequent breach would be met with an immediate committal order. Although the breach did not involve violence, the courts today take a much more serious view of conduct when it amounts only to words. Accordingly, the latest incident, considered in the context of Mr Collins' previous conduct and against the background of the court's earlier orders, merited a longer term of imprisonment than 28 days.

Regarding the suspended nature of the sentence, the court recognised the inherent tension in family proceedings, unlike criminal proceedings, between penalising breaches and securing compliance for the future. Given that the judge's intention was to put a stop to Mr Collins' behaviour, the court would not interfere with that aspect of the order.

On the procedural point, the court examined the wording of rule 52.3(1)(a)(i) of the Civil Procedure Rules 1998 (appellant or respondent requires permission to appeal, except where the appeal is against a committal order) and the judgment of Laws LJ in Government of Sierra Leone v Davenport [2002] EWCA Civ 230. Despite Laws LJ's provisional assessment to the contrary in Davenport, the court held that permission was not required since, on the plain words of the rule, it was difficult to see how the rule could be construed as restricting the right of appeal without permission to the contemnor, and not to both the applicant and the contemnor. Even if the court were wrong in this conclusion, Miss Collins would apply for permission to appeal and, if it were necessary to do so, the court would grant permission.

Digest prepared by Peter Smith

Read the full text of the judgment here