Civil proceedings – Do you know the extent of the risks?

Civil proceedings – Do you know the extent of the risks?

Understanding the risks of contempt of court in civil proceedings – Committal

It has long been the case that a party can be held to be in contempt of court in relation to civil proceedings.  A party may be in contempt of court where there is a deliberate breach of a court order, forgery, or where a false statement has been made verified by a statement of truth. These are just a few examples.

If a party brings an application for committal against an alleged contemnor, a civil judge has the power to make an order for committal (i.e. send them to prison), sequestration (i.e. a writ appointing enforcement officers to enter the person’s property and take possession of their goods) or impose a fine in respect of their contempt. 

Recent committal case – what is the impact?

In Jet 2 Holidays Ltd v Hughes and another [2019] EWCA Civ 1858, the Court of Appeal held that a false witness statement verified by a statement of truth made by a prospective claimant before the commencement of proceedings can still give rise to contempt and be the subject of an application for committal.

The appeal was brought by Jet 2 Holidays Ltd, against the respondents, Karl Hughes and Laura Hughes.  Mr and Mrs Hughes threatened to bring proceedings against Jet 2 Holidays Ltd due to alleged sickness suffered by them as a result of a package holiday they had booked with the company, alleging that their sickness had been caused by dirty and unhygienic conditions, and bad food, at their all-inclusive hotel at which they were staying in Lanzarote.

Mr and Mr Hughes sent a letter of claim to Jet 2 Holidays Ltd, giving notice that they intended on claiming damages for holiday sickness.  Jet 2 Holidays Ltd also received witness statements from Mr and Mrs Hughes, in purported compliance with the Pre-Action Protocol for Personal Injury Claims. They stated that they were acutely ill for most of the holiday with diarrhoea, stomach pains, vomiting, and suffered from a general lack of energy and felt very weak.

However, Jet 2 Holidays Ltd located photos and comments on social media posted by Mr and Mrs Hughes which appeared to show them as being physically well during their holiday. The information had been located on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Their claims were therefore rejected, and Mr and Mrs Hughes never commenced proceedings.  However, Jet 2 Holidays Ltd then sought permission from the court to bring committal proceedings against Mr and Mrs Hughes on several grounds relating to the alleged false statements verified by a statement of truth (in the case of each statement made by Mr and Mrs Hughes), arguing that they were in contempt of court and it would be in the public interest for permission for committal proceedings to be granted. 

Committal proceedings were formally issued by Jet 2 Holidays Ltd. At the case management conference, Judge Owen raised the question whether the court had jurisdiction to entertain committal proceeding since the witness statements had not been made in any extant proceedings.  He held that the court did not have jurisdiction to find contempt.  As part of that decision, he considered whether the witness statements were witness statements within CPR 32.14, which provides the following:

(1) Proceedings for contempt of court may be brought against a person if he makes, or causes to be made, a false statement in a document verified by a statement of truth without an honest belief in its truth.

(Part 22 makes provision for a statement of truth)

He held that a statement of truth within the ambit of Part 22 is concerned with a statement which is made and presented to the court, and any such witness statement would be served within actual proceedings which would have been started within the meaning of CPR 7.2. 

The Court of Appeal agreed with Judge Owen that jurisdiction to bring the committal proceedings was not conferred by CPR 32.14 which did not apply to witness statements made before the commencement of proceedings.  However, the Court of Appeal determined that “Irrespective of the Civil Procedure Rules, however, the court has an inherent power to commit for contempt” citing CPR 81.2(3) and paragraph 5.7 of Practice Direction 81.

The Court of Appeal went onto say that Mr and Mrs Hughes “set out their claims in a witness statement verified by a statement of truth plainly for the purpose of giving the impression to the appellant of greater weight and conviction to their claims than might otherwise be the case. They used the witness statements to indicate, in accordance with CPR 32.4(1), the oral evidence which they would give in proceedings and the verification of truth gave solemnity to that indication”.

The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal, finding that a dishonest witness statement served in purported compliance of a pre-action protocol is capable of interfering with the due administration of justice.  Contrary to what had been held by Owen J, the Court of Appeal found that there was a close connection between Mr and Mrs Hughes’ witness statements and the administration of justice, confirming that pre-action protocols “are now an integral and highly important part of litigation architecture

Warning to All

The case highlights that where a party intends on bringing a claim against another party, it is of paramount importance that everything that is said is true and accurate, particularly where a witness statement is provided. A party is at risk of committal if a false witness statement is served, even in the absence of any live proceedings.

If you would like advice in relation to this topic please contact our litigation team.

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