Whilst not everyone has an intimate knowledge of the law and our legal system, most people are aware that being found to be in contempt of court is far from ideal. Contempt of court happens when someone risks unfairly influencing the court in a way that may affect a trial’s outcome. There are a number of ways that you could do this such as disobeying or ignoring a court order, refusing to answer the court’s questions if called as a witness, or publicly commenting on a court case.
A Court of Appeal ruling in 2019 served to widen the scope for a finding of contempt of court so that lying in the pre-action stages was found to put the respondent in contempt of court, even where a claim had not yet been issued.
The respondents, Mr and Mrs Hughes, had booked an all-inclusive holiday with the appellant, Jet2 Holidays Limited. Mr and Mrs Hughes later wrote to Jet2 with a claim for damages for holiday sickness whereby they alleged that they had contracted food poisoning after eating contaminated food and drink at the hotel.
The letter to Jet2 was said to be in compliance with the relevant pre-action protocol (in this case the Personal Injury Claims Pre-Action Protocol). The courts require parties to engage with pre-action protocols prior to issuing a claim to ensure that unnecessary costs and time are not incurred. There are a number of different pre-action protocols for different types of claims. They each set out what must be done before court proceedings are issued, such as writing to the proposed defendant with details of that claim and giving them an opportunity to respond prior to issuing the claim. If the proposed claimant fails to comply with a pre-action protocol, this will be taken into account in any subsequent court proceedings and there may be costs implications.
The Hughes’ letter included witness statements stating that they believed their illness was caused by the undercooked food and unhygienic conditions in their hotel. Each of these statements contained a statement of truth confirming that the facts stated within them were in fact true.
Jet2 then did some online sleuthing and found a number of images on social media during their holiday which suggested that the Hughes’ were not suffering from any illness and seemed to show them enjoying their holiday. Jet2 therefore rejected their claim and the Hughes’s did not chose to pursue this any further and proceedings were never issued. However, Jet2 sought to commence proceedings against them for contempt of court on the basis that they had made false comments in their witness statements during the pre-action stage.
Issues and Judgment
Jet2 were initially given permission to bring their claim for contempt of court but the question then arose as to whether the High Court had jurisdiction to give such permission considering that the claim was never issued by Mr and Mrs Hughes. In the first instance it was concluded that they did not have the requisite jurisdiction and the application was struck out.
The matter was then appealed and the Court of Appeal held that there was in fact jurisdiction to commit for contempt of court even though no claim had been issued. It was enough that the false statements had been made in the pre-action stage.
What does this mean?
In short, it means that you shouldn’t lie in any statements made under the pre-action protocol. Although the court isn’t formally involved at this point, you could still be held to be in contempt of court.
It is important to note in this case that one of the key points was that the statement was verified by a signed statement of truth as this brought them within the remit of the Civil Procedure rules and was arguably intended to be presented to the Court if the claim was issued. The wording of the statement of truth also explicitly states that the claimant understands “that proceedings for contempt of court may be brought against anyone who makes, or causes to be made, a false statement in a document verified by a statement of truth without an honest belief in its truth”. It is fundamentally important that you do not sign a statement of truth without full belief in the truth of the contents of your statement.
The outcome in this case may therefore have been different if the false comments had not been made in a signed witness statement, verified by a statement of truth.
In the wider legal landscape, this judgment has led to changes in the Civil Procedure Rules to simplify the rules around bringing contempt proceedings and changed how parties view pre-action correspondence.
If you have any queries about pre-action protocols, witness statements or bringing a claim, please contact Kezia Brown by email or on 01494 893504.