The Court of Appeal has accepted that the threat of committal to prison for contempt of court should not be used simply to speed up a debt collection process involving a ‘difficult’ debtor, however long it has gone on.
The case involved a housing association and one of its tenants and dragged on for more than four years. Eventually, the association applied to the County Court for an order for require the tenant to attend court to answer questions about his ability to pay.
In instances like this, a judgment creditor, such as the Housing Association, is entitled to obtain a court order for a debtor to attend court to be questioned about their means. In order to compel attendance, however, evidence must be supplied by the creditor to show that the order has been served. It is not unusual for the creditor to find it difficult to serve notice on the debtor.
In this case, 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, on 22 November 2006, 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. As a result, the judge made an order in December committing him to prison for seven days, suspended provided he attended court on 13 March 2007. Again, the procedure was delayed, resulting in a further three such orders being made. The fourth and final comm
ittal order was issued in February 2009, requiring him to attend court and answer questions on 5 May 2009. This he did, resulting in the committal orders being discharged.
Because of the possible effect of the committal orders on his future prospects, he appealed against them. At appeal, it was accepted 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.
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.