Last month’s sentencing hearing in the case of Hart v Hart  EWHC 2966 was a stark reminder of the importance of adhering to court orders, as the husband’s sister was imprisoned after being found to be in contempt of court as a consequence of her refusal to comply with orders that related to the transfer of company shares to the wife.
Following financial proceedings upon divorce in 2015, the wife was awarded approximately £3.5 million of the husband’s assets totalling £9.4 million. Crucially this included requiring the husband to transfer to the wife a significant number of shares in his company, a company in which his sister was the sole director. The husband’s non-compliance with an undertaking given to the court and orders relating to the transfer of his shares resulted in the wife bringing enforcement proceedings against him in 2016.
As the name suggests, the purpose of enforcement proceedings in the context of a financial order upon divorce is to enforce the terms of the order where one party has failed to do so willingly. In relation to the payment of monies, various methods of enforcement can be used including attachment of earnings (e.g. requiring the non-paying party’s employer to transfer monies directly from their salary) and third party debt orders (e.g. requiring a bank to transfer monies from the non-paying party’s accounts). Ultimately, where there remains repeated breaching of orders though, the court also has the power to impose more punitive sanctions such as financial penalties and even the committal to prison of the non-compliant party, and this is precisely what occurred in this case.
In early 2018, a successful application for committal by the wife resulted in a 14 month imprisonment being imposed on the husband, who it must be noted was an 83 year old man in ill-health and with no previous convictions. The similar failure to facilitate the transfer of shares to the wife by the husband’s sister, who was joined as a party to proceedings, resulted in her too being committed to prison this month. In sentencing the sister to three months’ in prison, the judge viewed the sister’s contempt to have been “deliberate, damaging, sustained and motivated” which the judge regarded as aggravating factors that had “caused deliberate financial and emotional harm to the wife”.
Hart v Hart serves as a reminder of the powers available to the family court and the court’s increasing willingness, in recent times, to impose punitive sanctions on a non-compliant party where they, despite being given every opportunity not to do so, have continually breached orders of the court. This remains the case even where the party is not the spouse directly involved, but is a relative or company director.
Whether it is due to a party’s unrealistic expectations or the inherent risk of litigation, it is the nature of the beast that means financial proceedings cannot always produce a result both parties are happy with. This case though reiterates that it is important to bear in mind the potential consequences of willingly breaching orders and furthermore, it highlights the extensive enforcement options available against a non-compliant party.