Only the most vindictive person would genuinely want to see their former spouse committed to prison. Even where feelings run high, the vast majority of family litigants would therefore consider an application for committal to be an action of absolute last resort.
And so it was in the recent case Grose v Grose (which, incidentally, is I think the first magistrates’ court decision upon which I have ever commented – in fact, I can’t recall ever even reading one previously). The case concerned that most frustrating element of litigation: enforcement. You have expended a huge amount of time, trouble, expense and energy getting a final court order which should, of course, bring proceedings to an end, only to find that that is far from the end of the matter: the other party is not complying with the order, and you therefore have to take steps to enforce the order against them.
In Grose the order was a financial remedies order, made back in 2016, which required that the former matrimonial home be sold. It was actually made by consent, i.e. with the agreement of the wife, who was living in the property. Upon sale, the net proceeds were to be divided as to 30.54% to the husband, and the balance to the wife.
Unfortunately, the judgment does not tell us whether it was originally intended that the wife should vacate the property in advance of the sale. Obviously, she had to vacate when the sale took place. Whatever, she clearly did not cooperate, thereby frustrating the sale.
In October 2017 the court ordered the wife to vacate the property upon 14 days’ notice. She remained in the property, and in February 2018 the court ordered her to vacate the property by 4pm on the 13th of March 2018. She did not do so, and eventually the husband obtained a warrant for possession. On the 21st of March this year the bailiffs attended the property and finally the wife left.
Problem solved? No. On the 16th of April the wife, with “an element of deception”, re-entered the property.
And that is where, unsurprisingly, the husband reached the end of his tether. Reluctantly, he resorted to the ‘weapon of last resort’: he applied for the wife to be committed to prison for breach of the orders. The application was heard by His Honour Judge Bromilow in the Bristol Magistrates’ Court, on the 19th of June. The wife admitted three breaches of the orders: failing to vacate by the 13th of March, failing to remove her possessions when she did leave, and then re-entering the property. Judge Bromilow’s task was therefore simply to pass sentence upon her: should it be a fine, or a sentence of imprisonment? If the latter, how long should the sentence be, should it be suspended, and if so, for how long?
However, before passing sentence, he made the following observation:
“… when members of the public choose the court process as a means of resolving their differences, litigants are entitled to have confidence in the orders and their enforcement. Therefore, when applications are made to the court to enforce them, it is the court’s function to do so … in accordance with principle, guidance and the particular facts.”
Having regard to the wife’s mitigation (she is 51 years old, she was suffering stress, she had never been in trouble before, let alone gone to prison, and she was “struggling to move on and accept that circumstances must change including her departure from the home”), he decided he must impose a prison sentence in respect of each of the three breaches. He decided that the first should attract a sentence of 28 days, the second, a sentence of seven days and the third, which he said was “clearly the most serious and done in circumstances to frustrate further an already frustrating and rather depressing history”, attracted 42 days. The sentences would be concurrent, and the total therefore would be 42 days, or six weeks.
As to whether the sentence should be immediate or suspended, he was persuaded that it should be suspended, but for how long?
The most important thing, of course, was that the original order was finally complied with. This meant that there should be time for the wife to leave the property, for the husband to prepare it for sale, and for it to be sold. Judge Bromilow considered that 15 months should be long enough for that, and he therefore suspended the prison sentence for that time.
As a further warning to anyone minded to disobey a court order, it should be pointed out that the wife was also ordered to pay the husband’s costs, in the sum of £8,198. That sum would be deducted from her share of the proceeds of sale, thereby leaving her with considerably less than she originally anticipated.
You can read the full judgment here.