What Can a Family Judge Do When Faced With a Parent's Absolute Defiance?

In cases where even a succession of stiff prison sentences has failed to bring about compliance with court orders, what is a judge to do? A family judge faced exactly that quandary in the case of a father who defiantly refused to cooperate in arranging the return of his two daughters from Libya to England.

As long ago as 2015, the father flew with his three children to Tunisia on an agreed visit to see their paternal grandmother. Instead of returning to this country, however, he took the children to Libya, the country of his birth. He subsequently returned to England with his son, but his daughters had, so far as was known, remained in Libya ever since.

Although one of the daughters had attained adulthood – the other was approaching her teens – neither of them was permitted to leave Libya without their father's formal consent. At their mother's behest, various court orders were made requiring him, amongst other things, to give such consent and to use his best endeavours to procure their return to England.

His persistent refusal to comply with those orders resulted in findings of contempt of court being made against him on four separate occasions. He received prison sentences totalling five years. His continued defiance, however, did not deter the mother from applying to have him committed to prison yet again.

His lawyers realistically submitted no mitigation on his behalf. They argued, however, that a further prison sentence would have no coercive effect on him in that he was determined to do nothing to help procure his daughters' return to England. Even if granted further time for compliance, he would not alter his stance.

Had the father been prosecuted in a criminal court, his lawyers pointed out that the maximum sentence for child abduction is seven years' imprisonment. After a one-third deduction for a guilty plea, the maximum would be 56 months. He had already been sentenced to more than that for his successive acts of civil contempt.

Ruling on the matter, the judge noted that the maximum sentence for contempt of court is two years. However, it was possible for successive breaches of the same court orders to result in successive findings of contempt and successive terms of imprisonment which, in aggregate, exceeded two years.

In sentencing the father to a further 12-month jail term, the judge refused to overlook his wilful defiance and the appalling consequences of his conduct. Even if the sentence had no coercive effect, it was still an appropriate punishment. There was no basis for suspending the term in that he had given not an ounce of indication that that would achieve anything. The judge expressed the hope that his separation from his son during his period behind bars might prompt him to think again.