News | March 26, 2018

High Court Family judge finds “rich and privileged” 83 year old husband in contempt and incarcerates him for 14 months

 On 15 March 2018, His Honour Judge Wildblood QC, sitting as a Judge of the High Court, sentenced husband, John Ralph Hart, to 14 months imprisonment as a result of his serious contempt within divorce proceedings. Hart v Hart [2018] EWHC 549 (Fam)

In June 2015, HHJ Wildblood QC found at a Final Hearing that Mr Hart and his wife, Karen Jayne Hart, had a total wealth of £9.375 million and considered them both to be “rich and privileged people“. Their wealth was divided 38% (about £3.5 million) to Mrs Hart and the remaining balance to Mr Hart. Additionally, it was ordered that shares held for Mr Hart in a company (Drakestown Properties Limited) should also be transferred to Mrs Hart. Mrs Hart therefore became responsible for the management of the company.

Whilst HHJ Wildblood QC acknowledged that Mr Hart was “polite and, at times, refreshingly humorous” at the Final Hearing, as a witness, he was a “disaster“. It had been extremely difficult for the Court to identify the resources available to the parties as a result of Mr Hart’s “lack of proper engagement in [the] proceedings“. For example, Mr Hart provided little information about the family trust (worth about £5.5 million) and his evidence about past events had been “under-researched” and, at times, was “deliberately obstructive“.

In order for Mrs Hart to deal with the efficient and effective management of the company (named to above) and its assets, Mr Hart gave an undertaking:

“to take all steps necessary (including, for the avoidance of doubt, the provision of information and documentation and the notification of third parties of the cessation of his interest in Drakestown Properties Limited) to ensure that the Applicant [Mrs Hart] is forthwith able to conduct the efficient and effective management of [the company] and its assets”

The order contained a warning that if [Mr Hart] failed to comply, then he would be in contempt of court and liable to be imprisoned, fined or to have his assets seized.”

Following the Final Hearing, Mr Hart:

  1. delayed the effective transfer of the company to Mrs Hart; and
  2. his staff stripped out all of the management records, leaving very little for Mrs Hart to effectively manage the company.

As a result of Mr Hart’s deliberate actions, Mrs Hart was left with little option but to issue further proceedings against Mr Hart to provide information that was essential to the running of the company. Despite orders being made in favour of Mrs Hart on 24 February 2016 and 29 July 2016 to provide the information, and that the latter order recorded Mr Hart’s confirmation that, “the documents were available and could be provided“, and that Mr Hart had been warned that his failure to comply would render Mr Hart in contempt, he still did not provide that information as ordered. Mrs Hart therefore applied for Mr Hart’s committal in September 2016.

Mr Hart’s actions meant that:

  1. Mrs Hart had not been able to file full accounts for the company;
  2. Mrs Hart was unable to deal with insurance claims relating to the subsidence of the company premises;
  3. Mrs Hart was unable to defend a claim to rate, leading to the company having to bear a significant liability; and
  4. Mrs Hart had great difficulty filing VAT returns.

In terms of the level of contempt, HHJ Wildblood QC found:

  1. Mr Hart was persistent in his contempt, which, “continued from the time of his undertaking to the time of the committal application“;
  2. In February 2018, Mr Hart, “gave untruthful evidence on many issues in an attempt to conceal his contempt“;
  3. Mr Hart had “shown no remorse about his failure to comply with his undertaking or with the two enforcement orders“;
  4. Mr Hart’s contempt had “been motivated by a wish to demonstrate his resentment against Mrs Hart about the financial order” that were made in her favour; and
  5. Mr Hart’s “contemptuous actions have brought very significant pressure and expense upon Mrs Hart”.

Although HHJ Wildblood QC considered mitigating factors when determine sentencing, such as, that Mr Hart had no criminal convictions, a prison sentence would have had a very marked effect on him, that he is now 83 years and that no one wants to see someone of that age going to prison unless genuinely necessary, that he was a successful businessman and contributed to society, and that he also suffered from ill-health, his actions were so serious that they were acts of contempt and only a sentence of imprisonment was justified. Specifically and among other things, “Mrs Hart had been seriously prejudiced, Mr Hart acted to put Mrs Hart under pressure, his breaches were deliberate and sustained, the breaches lay at a high level of culpability, Mr Hart was solely responsible for the breaches, and he had not co-operated in the enforcement proceedings and did not appear to recognise the seriousness of what he had done.

It is quite extraordinary that despite the sentencing of Mr Hart, the information sought by Mrs Hart was still outstanding at the date of judgment.

The case is a stark reminder that the Court does have the ability to use its teeth, but HHJ Wildblood QC acknowledges in his judgment that, “if the coercive element that [he has] ordered does not produce the outstanding information in the circumstances…, a longer sentence would not either“. One therefore questions then, where does that leave Mrs Hart?