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Court of Appeal upholds decision to imprison husband in serious contempt of court

‘Disregard of the orders was motivated by resentment’

The Court of Appeal has upheld the decision to imprison a husband who was sentenced to 14 months for serious and ongoing contempt of court.

The Harts have been involved in a long running divorce dispute and were previously in the Court of Appeal in 2017.  John Hart, a wealthy Midlands property developer had been married to his wife, Karen, for 23 years when they first separated in 2006.  During the course of their marriage they raised two children and together amassed a considerable fortune.

At the High Court in 2015 Mrs Hart, represented by Irwin Mitchell, was given a settlement which involved the transfer of a particular company into her sole name. Mr Hart gave an undertaking to the court that he would facilitate that transfer in such as way so as to allow her to run the company in an efficient and effective manner.

In breach of the undertaking, he caused the books and records of the company to be removed and has refused to disclose their whereabouts or to provide the entirety of them.  The court made subsequent orders requiring him to provide certain relevant documents and records and to take specific, proactive steps.

In February this year His Honour Judge Wildblood QC found that Mr Hart's contempt was persistent, that he had given untruthful oral evidence in an attempt to conceal his contempt, and that he showed no remorse about his failures to comply. Further, the contempt was motivated by a wish to demonstrate his resentment about the financial orders made in his wife's favour. It was found that the contemptuous actions brought very significant pressure and expense on her, which is what they were intended to do.

Mr Hart argued that the decision to imprison him was wrong and that the sentence was too long. He contended the terms of the undertaking were too wide and that the orders the Family Court had made were outside of its powers.

Mrs Hart accepted that the undertaking was wide – but contended that the orders had been properly made.  She highlighted that they had been made with Mr Hart's consent two years before and never before had Mr Hart challenged them.

The Court of Appeal echoed Mrs Hart's concerns. They did not allow Mr Hart permission to appeal the orders.  In respect of the finding of contempt they concluded that the trial judge had "dealt meticulously with the evidence" and "explained why, applying the criminal standard of proof, he was satisfied that the breaches were proved".  They found he had carefully weighed up aggravating and mitigating factors and properly concluded that a 14-month sentence was appropriate. That sentence was not manifestly excessive.

In a conclusion the Court of Appeal said:

"Nothing said during the course of the hearing of the appeal gave any indication that the husband has yet appreciated the seriousness [of what he has done]. There was no expression of regret or apology which might ameliorate the judge's conclusion that the husband's contemptuous disregard of the orders was motivated by resentment."

Sarah Balfour, Partner with Irwin Mitchell, commented:

"It is right that the Court of Appeal has upheld the decisions previously made. In his sentencing, His Honour Judge Wildblood QC set out a clear message that orders made by the court must be respected. The judgment was fair, balanced and set out the many opportunities that Mr Hart had been given by Mrs Hart to comply with the court's orders and enable her to manage her company effectively and efficiently.

"The Court of Appeal has expressly endorsed that message. Once it has made a decision, the court does have the teeth to enforce it.

"Mrs Hart has pursued these proceedings with a heavy heart. All she has ever sought is the ability to run the company awarded to her in an effective way. She has behaved in an exemplary fashion in conducting the proceedings which were extraordinarily difficult, lengthy and costly due to the approach of Mr Hart."

The judgment will appear on Family Law Week in due course.