The case of Duggan, Re (Contempt in the Face of the Court) [2022] EWHC 2529 (Fam) considered allegations that the Defendant was in contempt of court at a remote hearing that had been conducted via telephone earlier in the year. Contempt of court refers to behaviour that takes place during legal proceedings that prejudices or impedes the administration of justice or creates a real risk of that happening.

Contempt was alleged to have been established as the Defendant insulted the Judge, was abusive to the Judge, disrupted proceedings and showed himself unwilling to recognise the authority of the Court through his telephone.

Allegations against the Defendant included saying “Who the [expletive] do you think you are speaking to me like that?” and “You listen to me, what I’m saying for one minute, mate” to the Judge. The Defendant also threatened to record and publish the hearing. When warned against this, he replied “Mate, I’m not bothered by what you say”. The Judge reported herself to be “extremely shaken” following this.

At this hearing, the Defendant admitted these assertions and it was found from an audio recording that the Defendant did address the Judge in the alleged way. However, it was clear that his mental health may have been an issue as he had been previously invited to make an application to appoint a McKenzie friend. The Defendant had been referred to local secondary mental health services earlier that year and was in receipt of sickness benefits and Personal Independence Payments (for those with long term physical/mental health conditions).

The Judge found that the Defendant had intended to disrupt or create a real risk of prejudicing the administration of justice in the earlier hearing and that it was a foreseeable consequence of his verbal abuse. His conduct was therefore found to be in contempt of court. The Judge imposed a term of imprisonment of 14 days, for each of the four proven allegations, to run concurrently.

However, the Judge accepted that the Defendant had a relevant history of ill mental health that may have contributed to his behaviour. Taking this into account, the Judge suspended his sentence for a period of 12 months as opposed to an immediate term of imprisonment, provided that the Defendant does not conduct himself in any court proceedings in a way that is found to be in further contempt of court.

Contempt of court can be punishable by a up to two years in prison (or a fine). This case demonstrates that the influence of mental ill health on behaviour is given consideration by the Family Court and carries significant weight when deciding a fair punishment for a Defendant.

Additionally, a significant point stressed by the Judge was that remote hearings that take place via telephone or video link, are no less a court hearing than a physically attended one. This is a reminder that the same respect for the process of the Court is expected in a remote hearing. This is especially important to bear in mind in the age of remote and hybrid hearings following the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

If you need help with a case such as this, please contact Mavis on 020 8885 7986 for an appointment with a member of the family team.

If you have a family law case you need assistance with, please contact Mavis on 020 8885 7986 to arrange for an appointment with a solicitor in the family team.

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