Whether committal proceedings can be brought if alleged wrongdoer has been acquitted by the criminal courts
After a claimant's personal injury claim was struck out when the defendant's insurers obtained surveillance footage demonstrating that the claim was a sham, an application for permission to bring committal proceedings for contempt was made. The claimant was then acquitted of fraud by the criminal courts.
The novel issue in this case was therefore whether committal proceedings can be brought where the alleged contemnor has already been tried and acquitted by a criminal court on the same facts (it being well established that someone punished for contempt of court can still be prosecuted in the criminal courts on the same facts). Hughes HHJ noted that the background to this case is "a sense of deep concern, felt by those who insure defendants to personal injury claims, about the increasing number of false and inflated claims. Insurers feel that there is a need for it to be made clear that such dishonesty will not be tolerated by the courts and will be punished as a contempt".
However, and "with reluctance", the judge concluded that permission should be refused.
The court has to balance the consideration that it should itself punish those who make false statements in civil proceedings with the consideration that the same allegations should not be litigated twice over. The judge concluded that: "I do not believe that the acquittal by the jury is an absolute bar to permission being granted for committal proceedings, but, in my view, permission is unlikely to be granted except, for example, where there is material evidence that was not before the jury, or where important new evidence has since come to light".
Accordingly, an application for permission to bring contempt proceedings should be made without any delay (and before the related criminal proceedings come to trial). The judge suggested that the Civil Procedure Rule Committee should consider this issue, since a county court judge is unable to grant permission to bring contempt proceedings, and so this can cause delay.