A failure to comply with a mandatory order to vacate a property is a contempt of court and adjournments of hearings are not simply there for the asking.

These were the findings in Forrester Ketley & Co v Brent, in which the claimant sued the defendant for fees and expenses arising from services provided to him. The claimant obtained a charging order over, and subsequently an order for sale of, the defendant's property. The defendant continued to refuse to give up possession and a mandatory order to leave was obtained. The defendant was refused permission to appeal against that injunction.

The claimant then applied for a committal order. The defendant failed to attend the committal hearing claiming he was too ill to attend due to a stress-related heart condition, and sought an adjournment. His solicitors did not attend either. The judge considered the medical evidence and concluded the defendant was absent voluntarily. He found the contempt proved and issued a suspended sentence.

The defendant still did not vacate the property but appealed, among other things, the contempt and committal orders on the basis the committal order should have been dealt with as a criminal matter. He submitted that the adjournment should have been granted due to his ill health and sought to adjourn the appeal on the same basis.  

The court disagreed that the Criminal Procedural Rules applied to such committal proceedings.

As to the adjournments, the court held that adjournments are an issue for judicial discretion and not there simply for the asking. An applicant for an adjournment on the grounds of ill health must provide medical evidence describing the medical condition and why it prevents participation in the hearing or trial. The judge then has to give the appropriate weight to that evidence.

Here, the judge had considered the evidence and had been entitled to take the view that the defendant had absented himself voluntarily. The court considered the refusal to adjourn was an impeccable exercise of discretion. Similar considerations applied to appeal hearings and the defendant's application to adjourn was likewise refused.

The court further ordered that court orders are there to be obeyed unless they are discharged. The defendant was under an obligation to obey a mandatory order to vacate the property unless it was set aside. It hadn't been and he had not complied with it. His contempt was therefore undisputed and it was inevitable that contempt proceedings would follow. Contempt had been proved.

Things to consider

There have been a number of cases recently where a party has sought an adjournment on the basis of ill health where the evidence provided has not been sufficient to convince the court that the party is truly unable to attend. In many instances, the adjournment application is simply made to stave off the inevitable and the courts will see through this quickly.

That evidence will need to demonstrate clearly why the party is unable to take part in the proceedings, not that they are just 'unwell'. Without that, the court is likely to be unwilling to grant an adjournment, especially where there has been prevarication or failure to comply with orders in the past.