There have been a couple of examples of family court judges sending people to prison for deliberately ignoring their orders. Although it doesn’t happen very often, as judges prefer to find another way to deal with matters where possible, family judges can and do send people to prison for breaching their orders – this is not a criminal conviction, but all civil (non-criminal) courts have a power to enforce their orders by committing the person who has broken it to prison. The family court is no different.
Whether the breach is of an order about a child or an order about money the approach is the same – the breach has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt just like in a criminal court, and the sentence that is imposed will be partly by way of punishment and partly in order to secure compliance. The longest sentence that can be imposed is two years (the max is 6 weeks where the committal is for non payment of debt under a judgment summons).
We wrote last year about a case called Hart v Hart. See our earlier post here. At that stage the Court of Appeal had dealt with an appeal from an order made by a judge that divided up the assets of a couple who had divorce. The issue was about how the judge had calculated his award bearing in mind some of the assets pre-dated the marriage. The appeal was dismissed. Since then the wife has been trying to enforce orders relating to the judge’s decision that Mr Hart should transfer a business to her as part of the settlement. Mr Hart had transferred the business and all its liabilities / responsibilities to her – but had stripped the business of all necessary paperwork with which to run it. This was a breach of an order and the judge found the breaches were repeated and intentional – essentially made out of spite because Mr Hart was mightily narked at the judge’s decision to give his ex one of his businesses. He had, said the judge, set out to frustrate her ability to run the business. Because the breaches were so serious and repeated, and because the sentence was also intended to ‘coerce’ Mr Hart into (finally) providing the documents, the sentence was for a total of 14 months, of which Mr Hart will likely serve half.
Such a sentence is unusual, more so because Mr Hart is an octogenarian.
We also wrote last year about another case where a pensioner was committed to prison for breaking orders (of the Court of Protection in that case). See here, regarding the committal of Mrs Kirk, who was 71 at the time. Mrs Kirk was sentenced to six months imprisonment for breaking orders made to secure the return of Mrs Kirk’s elderly brother from Portugal where he had been placed in a care home. In the event, however, Mrs Kirk served only seven months as a result of a successful appeal.
In another recent case : Borg v El Zubaidy  EWHC 432 (Fam) (26 February 2018), a father was committed to prison for twelve months (likely to serve six), having already served six months of a twelve month sentence in respect of essentially the same issues. Mr El Zubaidy had taken his children abroad to Tunisia and then failed to return them for several years, suggesting he did not know where they were. The first sentence related to an order requiring the children’s return by a particular date, and the second related to breaches of a later return order.
The court simply did not find believable the father’s suggestion that he didn’t know where the children and his family were saying he had been unable to make contact with them – he did not seem at all bothered by the possibility that his children might have come to harm. The judge imposed a second 12-month sentence in the hope it would persuade the father to ‘find’ his lost children.
*Update : the max is 6 weeks where the committal is for non payment of debt under a judgment summons. Thanks to David Burrows for suggesting this amendment.
UPDATE 1 APRIL : See judgment in Lukjanenko v Medway Council  EWCA Civ 612 (27 March 2018), where a father’s appeal against an 8 month sentence for breaking reporting restriction and anti-harassment injunctions was dismissed (the sentence was upheld). See our earlier post about that case here.
Pic courtesy of Mark Strozier on Flickr (Creative Commons) – thanks!