The contempt proceedings arose in the context of a road traffic accident, in which the first defendant was injured. He brought a claim against the first claimant, who was the driver of the other car. The first claimant and his insurers counterclaimed for a declaration that the first defendant’s claim was “contaminated by ‘spectacular dishonesty’ in that he had set out to perpetrate a ‘manipulation of the civil justice system on a grand scale’”, and for his claim to be struck out as an abuse of the court’s process. They also obtained permission to commence committal proceedings for contempt of court on the basis that the first defendant had grossly exaggerated the extent of his injuries and had falsely verified those injuries in his statement of claim, a schedule of loss and his witness statement, which each contained a statement of truth signed by him.
The first defendant’s witness statement painted the picture of a housebound recluse who was virtually immobile and who had to use a wheelchair to go any distance. He also claimed to have developed a chronic fear of travelling and could no longer go caravanning. However, video footage obtained from covert surveillance showed that he was always able to walk and at no time was he seen in a wheelchair. The claimants were also able to rely on photos obtained from Facebook to show that the defendants had been on a caravanning holiday to Lake Garda after the accident; it transpired the first defendant had driven there and back, contrary to descriptions in his witness statement highlighting the good care he received by airport and airline staff in flying to Italy for the holiday.
The first defendant did not dispute that at least some of the facts that he verified as true were no longer true at the time that he signed his statement of truth. He also acknowledged that he would have realised that they were false had he known what he was verifying. However, he claimed that he had not read the documents, or at least not read them sufficiently, before signing them.
Despite some medical evidence suggesting that the first defendant was suffering from depression that may have led him to sign the documents without reading them, the Judge referred to annotations on the final draft of his witness statement, which showed that he must have read and understood the witness statement sufficiently before signing it and indeed had absorbed it sufficiently to correct it in places. (As part of his defence to the contempt proceedings, the first defendant had alleged that his previous legal advisers had misunderstood or incorrectly drafted the witness statement on his behalf, which resulted in a successful application for additional disclosure following a waiver of legal professional privilege over the entire file held by his previous solicitors.)
Further, the first defendant had been specifically advised in writing by his solicitor that “Once you are happy with the statement, please can you initial at the bottom of each page and sign the statement of truth at the end to confirm that you have an honest belief in the contents of your statement. I am obliged to advise that if this proves to be a false declaration, your credibility as a witness could be affected. Your claim could be reduced or dismissed altogether, and you may also be found to be in contempt of court which is punishable by a fine or imprisonment.”
The first defendant was found guilty of contempt of court, pursuant to rule 32.14(1) of the Civil Procedure Rules (which provides for proceedings for contempt of court to 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). The court noted that the defendant was not in a position to pay any fine imposed, but that this was not in itself a reason for imposing an immediate prison sentence. However, in the circumstances the court deemed it appropriate to give the first defendant an immediate prison sentence of nine months (the maximum sentence is two years). The Judge noted that whilst he did not intend to increase the sentence for deterrent purposes, it was his direct experience that fraudulent insurance claims of this kind were endemic and that those who are caught should expect to go to prison.