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May 26, 2021

Civil Contempt Proceedings: County Courts Act offences and High Court certifications

This week’s bulletin considers contempt proceedings under CPR 81 (also referred to as ‘committal proceedings’) in relation to County Courts Act offences and High Court certifications. It is not intended to cover the individual peculiarities of the diverse range of committal-type actions that may be taken when a defendant is in breach of the County Courts Act or a High Court certification.

County Courts Act 1984 (quasi-contempts)

There are a number of separate, although similarly themed, offences under the County Courts Act 1984 (CCA 1984).

Prior to 1 October 2020, these matters were dealt with in CPR 81. However CPR 81 was amended with effect from 1 October 2020 and these offences are not covered in CPR 81 with effect from that date. The practitioner should review the individual sections of the various acts if confronted with the offences under the CCA 1984, which include:

  • assaulting a court officer (CCA 1984, s 14)
  • rescuing or attempting to rescue goods seized (CCA 1984, s 92)
  • wilfully (CCA 1984, s 118):
  • insulting a judge, juror, witness or court officer
  • interrupting court proceedings, or
  • other misbehaving in court
  • failure of court officer to levy execution (CCA 1984, s 124)

The procedure

Since the procedure for dealing with these offences under CCA 1984 has not been replicated in the post-1 October 2020 CPR 81, it is therefore unclear what, if any, process or procedure now applies.

However, CPR 81.6 covers circumstances where a court considers that a contempt of court, such as contempt in the face of the court, may have been committed. In such circumstances the court on its own motion considers whether to proceed against a defendant. If the court chooses to proceed against the defendant it will ‘summons’ the defendant by using form N601. Some of the offences listed above are akin to contempt in the face of the court, and therefore a practitioner may wish to highlight to the court, the power in CPR 81.6 and the requirements of CPR 81.4(2)(a)–(s) as a general, procedurally robust, framework which the court may wish to have regard to, before proceeding. If a court, of its own initiative, proceeds against a defendant in contempt proceedings, it must have regard to these factors (CPR 81.6(3)).

However, it should be noted that the offences under CCA 1984 are not strictly contempt of court matters, for instance, the period of imprisonment for each is dissimilar to the general contempt of court provisions and law. Therefore, adopting a belt and braces approach, in the absence of specific processes and procedures, the requirements in force pre-1 October 2020 may prove to be a safe place to start for these quasi-contempt matters.

High Court certifications

The version of CPR 81.15 in force pre-1 October 2020 states that:

‘…the High Court has power to punish or take steps for the punishment of any person charged with having done or omitted to do anything in relation to a court, tribunal, body or person which, if it had been an act or omission in relation to the High Court, would have been a contempt of that court.’

High Court certifications are derived from individual statutes. They permit the High Court to exercise those statutory powers to commit an individual for contempt.

These statutory powers include (but are not limited to):

  • Companies Act 1985 (CA 1985) (via Administrative Court)
  • Charities Act 2011 (via Chancery Division)—see the judgment in Charity Commission v Wright [2019] EWHC 3375 (Ch) for an example of such a matter
  • Data Protection Act 1998 (via Administrative Court)
  • Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (via Administrative Court)

The procedure

In a similar vein to the County Court quasi-contempts, these types of offence are not quite a contempt. For instance within CA 1985, s 436, once the offence is found proved by the court the section states as follows:

‘the court may punish the offender in like manner as if he had been guilty of contempt of the court.’ [emphasis added]

The ‘as if’ and ‘in a like manner’ indicating that they are similar, but not the same.

Under CPR 81 (as in force pre-1 October 2020), an application or certification is to be made on the form prescribed by Practice Direction 81, Annex 1. However with effect from 1 October 2020, Practice Direction 81 (and its annexes) are revoked. Post-1 October 2020, a contempt application is made by way of CPR 8 or CPR 23.

It remains to be seen what process or procedure will be adopted by the High Court but it is suggested, similarly to the County Court Act offences, that by approaching the litigation in line with the requirements of CPR 81 (as in force post-1 October 2020), the practitioner can at least establish that it was a fair process.

Like other contempts, the High Court has the power to waive the procedural requirements.

The response

The defendant is not obliged to but can submit evidence in response (CPR 81.4(2)(m)) and the court will give such directions as it thinks fit in this regard (CPR 81.7(1)).
Richard Shepherd
Alex West