Father Tests Limits of Family Court’s Coercive Powers

In an extraordinary case that starkly reveals the limits on the coercive powers of the family courts, a judge has declined to impose a further prison sentence on a father who had already served nearly two years continuously in jail for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of his six-year-old daughter.

Following the parents’ separation, the girl’s British mother had taken her on holiday to her father’s homeland, Egypt, so that she could get to know her paternal family. However, it was the mother’s case that the little girl had effectively been ‘kidnapped’ by her father in Egypt and sent to live with his mother there.

The mother had been constrained to return to England without her daughter, whom she had not seen since. The father, who was resident in England, had failed to comply with a series of court orders requiring him to reveal the girl’s location and arrange her return to the UK. He had repeatedly been found in contempt of court and had been in prison for almost two years.

With the father shortly due to be released, the mother’s legal team had sought a further 12-month sentence for his continued ‘flagrant’ contempt. It was submitted that the father ‘would at last crack’ when faced by a further period of imprisonment and that a firm approach was absolutely necessary to impress upon him that ‘the Court means business’.

However, in refusing the mother’s application, Mr Justice Holman noted that the ‘surprisingly short’ maximum sentence for contempt of court is two years. Although consecutive sentences were permissible, the Court had to be ‘very cautious indeed not to subvert altogether the will and intention of Parliament’ by imposing a series of sentences that, together, exceeded the two-year maximum.

The father had, at any rate whilst he remained in prison, displayed an ‘absolute determination’ not to comply with the court orders. In those circumstances, a yet further term of imprisonment was unlikely to have any coercive impact upon him and the only realistic purpose of such a sentence would be solely to punish him.