The Court of Appeal recently criticised the use of the threat of committal to prison by a council in order to obtain payment of rent.
From 1999, Broomleigh Housing Association made three separate claims for possession against a tenant. All were eventually withdrawn on terms that he must pay costs amounting to £441.68 in total. These were ignored, so the Association applied to Croydon County Court for an order requiring him to attend court to answer questions about his ability to pay.
The Association’s officers made repeated attempts to serve the court orders but were unable to do so, resulting in four separate scheduled court hearings being adjourned. At the fifth attempted hearing one of the Association’s officers gave evidence that he had served the papers, although this was later denied by the tenant, who did not appear at the hearing. The judge made an order in December committing the tenant to prison for seven days, suspended provided he attended court on 13 March 2007. Finally, a final committal order was issued in February 2009, requiring the tenant to attend court to answer questions on 5 May 2009. This he did, resulting in the committal orders being discharged. The tenant appealed against the various orders and the matter ended up in the Court of Appeal.
At appeal, it was submitted that, before a judge can properly make a committal order, he must not only consider all the evidence but also allow the judgment debtor to be heard in his own defence. Failure to do so, it was said, would involve a breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Although a court has the power to make a committal order, to do so requires the exercise of discretion, which in turn requires consideration of the circumstances of the contempt. In the judgment of the Court, committing a person to prison for contempt of court is too serious a step to be undertaken simply as a matter of routine.