Lessons for all from a contempt case

Family Law|June 19th 2019

As I have often said here, I don’t usually comment upon cases dealing with public law matters, i.e. children cases involving a local authority, in particular care proceedings. However, the recent case London Borough of Wandsworth v Lennard clearly has lessons for anyone involved in any type of children proceedings.

The case has two aspects: the factual one and the legal one. I’ll come to the legal one in a moment, but the factual one is perhaps of greater interest to readers. It concerns the all too common circumstance of the parent, frustrated with the way that the ‘system’ is dealing with their case, losing their temper and taking matters into their own hands. It also concerns the serious issue of protecting all of the professionals working within the family justice system, be they social workers, as in this case, Cafcass officers, judges, court staff or even lawyers dealing with cases.

We are told at the beginning of the judgment in the case that the Defendant, the father of the children concerned in the case, was in July last year made subject to an injunction order prohibiting him from using offensive, foul, threatening words or behaviour towards two social workers employed by the Applicant local authority, the London Borough of Wandsworth. Unfortunately, the judgment does not explain why that order was made, but we can assume that it was because the Defendant had previously behaved in such a way towards the social workers.

We are then told that in February this year, as he admitted, the Defendant attended Wandworth Town Hall, and detained two other social workers, by preventing them from leaving a room. It was alleged that in the course of the incident he made threats of harm towards one of the social workers named in the order.

The named social worker was not present during the incident, but the local authority nevertheless sought to have the Defendant committed to prison for breach of the order, the sole alleged breach being the threat towards that social worker. The committal application was heard by Mr Justice MacDonald in the High Court.

OK, let’s just pause there. The Defendant has now, it would seem, behaved completely inappropriately, to put it at its mildest, towards social workers on at least two occasions. In so doing, he has of course done himself and his case no favours. He risks being sent to prison for his behaviour, and he has no doubt seriously damaged his case (for details of what the case was about, see the report).

Meanwhile, looking at things from the perspective of the professionals involved, they have been subjected to abusive language, threats and more. They obviously should be entitled to go about their work free from such things, and are clearly entitled to the full protection of the law.

But then, so does the father, and this is where the legal aspect of the case comes in. Committing someone to prison, curtailing the liberty of the citizen, is obviously a very serious step for a court to take. It will only therefore be taken when there is a clear breach of an order, and provided that strict procedural requirements have been complied with. The effect of this is that the terms of the order are narrowly interpreted, to ensure that they are not used to cover more than was intended.

Here, Mr Justice MacDonald construed the order in the narrow sense that the word “towards” meant that the words used by the Defendant should have been used in the ‘presence’ and directed at the named social worker. The social worker hearing the words from others did not count. Note, however, that if the words had, for example, been published on social media and the named social worker read them then they would be caught by the order.

Mr Justice MacDonald accepted that this narrow interpretation may be said to reduce the protective efficacy of the injunction. However, the penal consequences of the injunction argued against extending the effect of the injunction to words that were not spoken in the presence of the person protected by the order.

Accordingly, there was no breach of the injunction, and the committal application was therefore dismissed.

That is not necessarily the end of the matter, however. The judgment ends with Mr Justice MacDonald saying: “Given the conduct that has been admitted by [the Defendant] in his statements before the court, I will hear submissions on whether the terms of the current injunction should be extended either in their ambit, their duration or both.” I would be surprised if the injunction was not extended, in both ways.

You can read the full judgment here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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