Young v Young [2013] EWHC 34 (Fam)

On 16 January 2013 the High Court considered whether a custodial sentence was warranted for a Respondent to ancillary relief proceedings who failed to disclose information and documents when ordered to do so.

Background

Mr and Mrs Young were involved in long running financial proceedings in which Mr Young claimed he was penniless and bankrupt. Conversely, Mrs Young contended that he was a very wealthy man worth up to £400 million. She argued that he had hidden all of his resources to avoid his obligations towards his children and her.

Mr Young was directed on a number of occasions to provide evidence detailing how he was maintaining himself and of payments made for his benefit by third parties. This was a key aspect of the dispute as Mrs Young asserted that he had been making payments to himself from undisclosed financial resources rather than receiving funds from third parties.

Mr Young failed to comply with these orders and in June 2009 was committed to prison for six months for contempt. The imprisonment was however suspended for 92 days on terms that he provide the answers and documents sought by September 2009.

In the meantime, an order was made granting maintenance pending suit directing that Mr Young pay his wife’s rent, the children’s school fees and the sum of £27,500 per month. Mr Young paid very little and the arrears ultimately ran close to £1 million.

Mr Young did eventually provide some documents in November 2009, although Mrs Young contested that these were insufficient, and the matter of committal was adjourned.

As a consequence of ill health affecting the judge and Mrs Young’s own funding problems the matter was not substantively pursued again for some time.

In November 2012 the court yet again directed that Mr Young make good his disclosure and attached another penal notice to encourage his compliance. When this was not forthcoming, Mrs Young applied for committal for contempt under both the June 2009 and November 2012 orders.

Findings

The Court determined that Mr Young had not complied with the time limits of the November order and as a result there was no question as to whether he was in contempt of court. However, Mr Young had provided a set of answers and documents the day prior to the committal hearing. The Court therefore considered carefully whether these were sufficient to satisfy the questions in Mrs Young’s questionnaire.

Whilst it was accepted that Mr Young had at least provided some answers, it was noted that there were still significant deficiencies in his explanation as to how he was supporting himself financially. The Court commented that one answer in particular was ‘next to useless’ in providing an adequate response to Mrs Young’s query.

Mr Young had argued that he was unable to comply with the November order as a consequence of having been hospitalised for several weeks in the run up to the hearing. However, it was determined that this was not sufficient to excuse him from having to deal with the application at hand. It was accepted that whilst the imminent threat of prison may have made Mr Young unwell it was not an adequate excuse for contempt of court. It was pointed out that there would not have been a threat of imprisonment if Mr Young had simply complied with the court orders in the first place.

It was consequently determined that the two instances of contempt were sufficiently serious to warrant a custodial sentence rather than a fine. The Court sentenced Mr Young to six months for the second contempt but decided not to re-activate the first instance of contempt.