UK: Committal Orders For Civil Contempt – The Last Weapon Available?

Last Updated: 23 March 2009
Article by Ruth Lane

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that, under the law of certain states in the US, individuals can be held in jail for seemingly indefinite periods for contempt in the civil courts, without ever receiving a criminal charge.1 Steve McCann and Ruth Lane of Peters & Peters consider the position under English law.

The Wall Street Journal highlighted the case of a Mr H. Beatty Chadwick, a former Philadelphia based lawyer who was ordered to make a payment of $2.5 million into court in the course of his own divorce proceedings. Thus far, Mr Chadwick has not managed to persuade the Delaware Court that he cannot comply with that order and has therefore languished in prison for civil contempt for the last 14 years.

Under US and English law, civil judges have the power to commit a party to serve a term of imprisonment for contempt of civil orders.

Injunctions prohibit a Respondent from engaging in certain activity (e.g. disposing of assets under a freezing injunction) or require certain steps to be taken (e.g. to provide information about what has become of certain assets under the "tracing" information provisions of a freezing order), or comprise a combination of positive and negative obligations. Injunctions can be "interim", imposed as a preservative measure in aid of a final determination, or permanent whereby the injunction prohibiting certain conduct or activity is itself the actual relief sought (e.g. to desist infringing intellectual property rights).

An intention to breach the order in question is not a necessary element for a contempt to be proved. Warrington J observed in Stancomb –v- Trowbridge Urban District Council [1910] 2 Ch 190 at 194:

"If a person or corporation is restrained by injunction from doing a particular act, that person or corporation commits a breach of the injunction, and is liable for process of contempt, if he or it in fact does the act, and it is no answer to say that the act was not contumacious in the sense that, in doing it, there was no direct intention to disobey the order."2

In the case of breaches of undertakings given to the Court, Rimer J in Miller –v- Scorey [1996] 2 All ER 18 at 28 held that:

"The question of whether or not a contempt in the nature of a breach of an undertaking to the Court has been committed involves an essentially objective test, requiring the determination of whether or not the alleged contemnor has acted in a manner constituting a breach of his undertaking. If he has, then a contempt will ordinarily be established regardless of whether or not he acted contumaciously or with the direct intention of breaking his promise, although I accept that whether any, and if so what, punishment or other consequences ought to be imposed on him will, or may be, materially dependent on considerations of this sort."

The purpose of committal (or the imposition of a fine or sequestration of assets) is to provide the court with "teeth" in order to ensure compliance with its orders and also to punish disobedience of its orders.

In England and Wales, prior to the Contempt of Court Act 1981, sentences could be indefinite. Now, section 14(1) of that Act provides that a sentence of imprisonment for contempt of court must be for a fixed term, which must not exceed two years in a superior court, or one month in an inferior court. Furthermore, section 258 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides that a person committed to prison for contempt of court is to be released unconditionally after having served one half of the term for which he was committed. This applies whether the Contemnor has been committed in respect of a civil or criminal contempt.3

The Contemnor's unconditional release after a maximum of one year's imprisonment applies regardless of whether he remains in breach of the order. In addition, the principle that no-one should be punished twice for the same misconduct applies to contempt as well as other areas of penal policy.4 Upon release from his custodial sentence, the Contemnor cannot be faced with a further application for committal for the same breach or breaches as those for which he has already served his sentence. If the Contemnor has not in the meantime "purged" his contempt by doing that which he was originally ordered to do, a new order with a new time limit for compliance has to be obtained if the litigant in whose favour the original order was made still seeks the same relief.

Section 14(1) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 also gives the judge the power to release a Contemnor at a point earlier than the end of the fixed term, where the Contemnor seeks to purge his contempt (for example, by providing the information that he has been ordered to provide) and the court is convinced of his sincerity.

English law contains a number of safeguards for the Respondent to a committal application. In addition to the two year maximum sentence that can be imposed and the early release provisions whereby the maximum sentence that can be served is one year, even though civil contempt is not a criminal offence the standard of proof is the criminal standard, namely proof beyond reasonable doubt. As The Wall Street Journal observed, some safeguards exist in the US; for example Congress passed a statute in 1970 limiting the length of civil confinement to 18 months for those who refused to testify in federal court or to a federal grand jury. Reformers hope that more States in America enact laws limiting the terms of civil confinement.

Whilst committal for contempt is intended to be coercive and punitive, it follows that by capping the term of imprisonment a Respondent to an English order may assess whether it is worthwhile to trade off up to one year in prison against deliberate non-compliance, safe in the knowledge that once the sentence has been served in respect of the breach or breaches of that order, he cannot be punished twice. Of course, the Contemnor risks a determined opponent seeking a new order requiring the act or acts to be done with a new timetable. If he subsequently disobeys that order, then he may be imprisoned. In the case of a prohibition, a fresh committal application for any new breach could be launched. However, the beneficiary of the order has to fund the subsequent application for committal, with no guarantee of making any costs recovery. Therefore, in a fraud case, a robust fraudster may decide to "sit out" the term of imprisonment in an effort to frustrate the progress of the litigation.

The court can mark its disapproval of a contumacious failure to comply with its order(s) by refusing to hear the Contemnor and in extreme circumstances by striking out the Contemnor's Defence. Whilst strike out of the Defence may represent a victory, such a victory may in fact be hollow if the Claimant is reliant on the co-operation and assistance of the Defendant, for example in providing tracing information to locate assets. Enforcement of a judgment may represent the starting point for the true battle.

In such cases where a party requires information to which only his opponent has access, section 39 of the Supreme Court Act 1981 provides powerful alternative relief. Under this provision, if a party refuses to execute an authority granting permission to third parties to provide information and/or documents to his opponent, any Master of the High Court can be nominated to sign the authority for and on behalf of the defaulting party. Such an authority operates for all purposes as if it were the authority of that defaulting party, the passive efforts of an uncooperative fraudster to block the progress of the litigation can be sidestepped.


1. No Charge: In Civil-Contempt Cases, Jail Time Can Stretch on for Years,, 7 January 2009.

2. That the above statement represents the true position in the law of contempt has been confirmed by the House of Lords in Director General of Fair Trading –v- Pioneer Concrete (UK) Ltd [1995] 1 AC 456 per Lord Nolan at 479-481.

3. Arlidge, Eady and Smith on Contempt,3rd edition, 2005. See also Lexi Holdings plc (in administration) –v- Luqman and Ors 2007 All ER (D) 23 (Jul) at 182.

4. Danchevsky v Danchevsky (No.2) CA Transcript, November 10, 1977, Lawton L.J; Lamb v Lamb [1984] F.L.R 278 at 282, Oliver.L.J, 283, Kerr, L.J; B v B (Contempt: Committal) [1991] 2 F.L.R 588 at 601 C-D, Purchas L.J.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.