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May 11, 2021

Civil Contempt Proceedings: Interference with the Administration of Justice

This week’s bulletin, the ninth in the series, considers when contempt proceedings under CPR 81 (also referred to as ‘committal proceedings’) can be brought where an interference with the administration of justice is alleged, including where a party needs the court’s permission to bring such an application.

These types of cases cover allegations of interference with the due administration of justice in connection with any proceedings (both civil and criminal) or otherwise. This includes contempt such as interference/disposal of relevant evidence during current civil or criminal proceedings or, as another example, the manipulation of evidence submitted before an inquiry. However, it does not include examples such as contempt in the face of the court or disobedience to a court order or breach of an undertaking.

When is the permission of the court required?

Permission is required to bring committal proceedings where the application is made in relation to the interference with the due administration of justice, except in relation to existing High Court or County Court proceedings (CPR 81.3(5)(a)).

However, where an allegation of interference with the due administration of justice can also be legitimately labelled as knowingly making a false statement, irrespective of whether it relates to existing High Court or County Court proceedings, it is likely that permission will be required (Cole v Carpenter [2020] EWHC 3155 (Ch)).

Some of the factors that will be considered in granting and refusing permission are dealt with in our previous bulletin on the nature and legal framework of contempt proceedings. A good overview of the matters to be taken into consideration is provided in the conjoined High Court authorities of Ocado Group Plc v McKeeve [2020] EWHC 563 (Ch) and [2020] EWHC 1463 (Ch). Though McKeeve was decided pre-1 October 2020, the redraft of CPR 81 preserves the substantive law. In this case, the guidance given at paras 17 onwards of the [2020] EWHC 563 (Ch) judgment was in relation to interference with justice by breaching a court order, but the approach suggested can be cross applied to different styles of interference with the administration of justice.

It is of note that in seeking permission to pursue false statement contempts, the applicant must establish a ‘strong’ prima facie case. However, in relation to permission applications for interests of justice contempts, an applicant need only establish ‘at least’ a prime facie case—see paras 20 and 21 of the [2020] EWHC 563 (Ch) McKeeve judgment, and the obiter remarks in Solicitor General v Holmes [2019] EWHC 1483 (Admin) (at para [45]).

The McKeeve decision ([2020] EWCH 1463 (Ch)) is also a good example of the strict requirement for crystal clear drafting as to the allegations being made so as to be compliant with Harmsworth v Harmsworth [1987] 1 WLR 1676 and Group Seven v Allied Investment Corp [2013] EWHC 1509 (Ch).

If permission to make the application is required, that permission must be included in the overarching contempt application, which will proceed to full hearing only if permission is granted (CPR 81.3(6)). Therefore the application for permission and for committal will need to comply with CPR 81.4(2)(a)–(s) from the outset.

Examples of interfering with the administration of justice

The ways in which an individual can be held in contempt for interfering with the administration of justice are varied. The following is a non-exhaustive list of convenient examples where such allegations have been made:

  • where metadata was falsified on photographs (Stanmore Quality Surfacing v Kartel, 21 July 2016)
  • taking photographs in court and publishing them on Facebook (Solicitor General v Cox [2016] EWHC 1241 (QB))
  • jurors undertaking internet research (Attorney General v Davey [2013] EWHC 2317 (Admin))

There are relatively few examples of contempt cases relying on a standalone ground of interference with the due administration of justice. However now that the Attorney General’s role in these applications has been curtailed by the 1 October 2020 incarnation of the CPR, it is likely that a greater number of these types of cases will be pursued and permission adjudicated upon by the courts.

Relevance of intention

A number of arguments have been pursued in the courts that can generically be described as ‘I didn’t mean to’, meaning the defendant did not intend to interfere with the due administration of justice. Such arguments have been roundly rejected.

The mens rea of this type of committal is not the specific intent to interfere with justice, all that is needed is an intent to do the act itself (Solicitor General v Cox [2016] EWHC 1241 (QB)).

In next week’s bulletin we’ll look at the making of false statements, covering the circumstances where it might be appropriate to make a contempt application and the proper timing of any application within existing proceedings.

Richard Shepherd
Alex West