No one takes pleasure from seeing an 83-year-old man being sent to prison, perhaps even less so when he has not committed a crime that might immediately be thought of as morally repugnant.
But the reality is that the man in question, John Hart, has committed a crime against the legal system by wilfully and continuously disobeying a court order, and therefore being in contempt for failing to co-operate with the terms of the divorce settlement with his former wife, Karen.
Why is it right that he be sent to prison for ignoring an order of the system? Quite simply, because the system, the rule of law to which we are all subject, matters. Without it we would have anarchy.
A self-made businessman, Hart chose to be in this situation. In June 2015 he was ordered by the divorce court to hand over £3.5 million of his £9.4 million wealth to his former wife, together with shares in a property company.
In February this year he was given a 14-month sentence for repeatedly trying to prevent his former wife from taking over his company. His appeal against the sentence, which was heard at the Royal Courts of Justice, London, last Friday, upheld the verdict and he is now in prison.
Before things reached this stage, Hart was given ample opportunity to comply. But Judge Wildblood, who heard the case in February, said that he was “an irresponsible litigant and an unsatisfactory witness” who filed evidence that was “thoroughly unsatisfactory and was often contradictory”.
The appeal judges refused to set aside the finding of contempt or the prison sentence. They pointed out that the financial remedy proceedings had been going on since November 2011, which Lord Justice Moylan described as an “extraordinary length of time” costing the couple well over £500,000 in legal fees.
They held that Judge Wildblood was plainly entitled to conclude that Karen Hart had been “seriously prejudiced” by his actions and that the breaches were “deliberate and sustained”.
In short, Hart was sent to prison for continuously refusing to provide documents and information that he simply did not want to give.
Cases such as this are rare in divorce proceedings. For an 83-year-old man to be sent to prison in these circumstances is even rarer. But Mr Hart was entirely the architect of his misfortune. He was given plenty of time, and no doubt, plenty of legal advice to comply.
Even now, if Mr Hart provided the documents as ordered, he could make an application to be released and probably be successful.
For any party in divorce proceedings who might be tempted to follow a similar path, the message is simple: don’t do it, because this could happen to you. Orders of the court need to be respected and followed.
Alex Carruthers, Partner
This article was published in The Times Law Brief