As I mentioned in this post, in his latest View from the President’s Chambers the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, recently warned that there should be consequences for failure to obey court orders. As if to emphasise this, last Friday the case of Ball v Shepstone was reported.
The judgment in the case was quite short. It concerned a wife’s application to the court for a settlement following divorce. On 15 July the husband was ordered by the court to file a Form E financial statement by 12 August 2013. The Form E is required by the court so that it has the information it needs to decide the financial application.
The husband failed to file his Form E and the wife applied to the court for him to be committed to prison for breach of the order. On 3 October 2013 the court found the husband to be in contempt of court for failing to comply with the order. Accordingly, the husband was committed to prison for fourteen days, suspended until 14 October to give him a final opportunity to file the Form E.
It would seem that the publication of this case is intended to send out a message that the courts will not tolerate refusal to comply with orders. As such, it is to be welcomed. As I said in my earlier post, failure of parties to comply with court orders is a regular frustration in family work. I’m sure many who are guilty of this have in the past been encouraged by the leniency or inaction of the court. Hopefully, the message will get out that you will not get away with it, and if it does then the incidence of such failures should be considerably reduced.
The failure to file a Form E on time is an all-too common problem that causes unnecessary delay in the progress of financial remedy applications. The reasons for such failures are manifold. For example, it may just be that the respondent to the application is slow in gathering together the details and documentation he or she requires to complete the form. On the other hand, the failure may be wilful, perhaps stemming from annoyance that the other party has made the application, an unwillingness to pay or just a belief that the court has no business prying into private financial arrangements. Or it may simply be a determination to do everything to delay and frustrate the application.
Whatever the reason, there has clearly been a cavalier attitude to filing Form Es in some quarters. As I indicated above, this may have been fuelled by a belief that the court “won’t do anything about it.” Perhaps it has also been fuelled by an ignorance of possible sanctions. Either way, the President’s initiative and the publication of cases such as Ball v Shepstone should go some way to alleviating the problem.
And the problem doesn’t necessarily end when the Form E is filed with the court. Often it is incomplete, sometimes with no more than a sulky token effort at filling it in. Hopefully, the courts will also crack down on this sort of behaviour, which is often little better than not filing the Form E at all.
A respondent to a financial remedies application will usually be given at least seven weeks to file their Form E. In most cases this should be sufficient, but obviously there may be more complex cases where it is not. If so, the respondent should ask the court for more time.
In other words, there should be no excuse for failure to comply with court orders.
John Bolch is a family law commentator