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Contempt of court for witness statements

Posted on 25th March 2020

A Statement of Truth

In court proceedings or in contemplation of court proceedings, parties have to prepare certain documents which are filed at court and served on the other side.

These documents will normally have to be verified by what we call a ‘Statement of Truth’ which usually reads:

‘[I believe][the (claimant or as may be) believes] that the facts stated in this [name document being verified] are true.’

The detailed rules governing a Statement of Truth is found in Part 22 of the Civil Procedure Rules (“CPR”) and the accompanying practice direction 22.

The most common form of document verified by a statement of truth is a witness statement of fact.

Consequences

Clause 4 and 5 of the practice direction of the Part 22 of the CPR confirm the consequences of

a) Failure to verify a document with a statement of truth – the contents of the document cannot be relied upon and a party can apply to strike out a statement of case

b) Falsely verifying a document – contempt of court proceedings can be brought under rule 32.14 of the CPR

New form of a Statement of Truth

From 6th April 2020 all documents which require a statement of truth will have to be in the following format:

‘[I believe][the (claimant or as may be) believes] that the facts stated in this [name document being verified] are true. I understand 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’.

The additional sentence is to highlight the serious consequences contained in clause 5 of the practice direction of the Part 22 and rule 32.14 of the CPR.

Contempt of Court

If you have falsely verified a document, then an application can be made to find you in contempt of court.

This is governed by Part 81 of CPR.

Permission of the court or an application by the Attorney General is required.

Like criminal proceedings, in contempt of court proceedings, the burden of proof is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ given the serious consequence that your liberty could be at stake.

If you are found in contempt of court you could be fined or imprisoned (up to 2 years) under the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

Whilst these proceedings are brought in civil courts, given their criminal nature, you could obtain criminal legal aid to defend these applications if you meet the means and merits test.

Recent developments

In the case of Jet 2 Holidays Ltd v Hughes & Anor [2019] the Court of Appeal accepted that you could be found in contempt of court if you gave a false statement of truth in a witness statement even if no court proceedings has been issued, and those statements had only been used in the pre-action protocol stage.

The original judge (Judge Owen) who heard the matter in November 2018 did not consider that he had jurisdiction to find contempt of court as no court proceedings has been initiated.

On appeal, this was heard by Sir Terence Etherton, Lord Justice Hamblen and Lord Justice Fluax.

They accepted that the jurisdiction to bring committal proceedings was not found in CPR 32.14 as “Witness statements made before the commencement of proceedings do not fall within that Rule. That is clear from para. 17.1 of PD 32, which requires witness statements to be headed with the title of the proceedings.”

However, they consider that the court has an inherent power to commit for contempt as recognised in CPR 81.2(3) and PD81 para 5.7 and found in common law.

The test at common law is whether the conduct in question involved an interference with the due administration of justice

They considered that “there was a close connection between the original witness statements made by the respondents and the administration of justice and that, if those witness statements were false, as appears strongly to be the case, they interfered with the administration of justice.”

They concluded that “A dishonest witness statement served in purported compliance with a PAP is capable of interfering with the due administration of justice for the purposes of engaging the jurisdiction to commit for contempt because PAPs are now an integral and highly important part of litigation architecture.”

Final Words

Given the above case and the amendment coming to the CPR, it is clear that makers of a statement of truth should do so with caution. Solicitors should provide full and detailed advice of the consequences of a false statement as the trend we have seen is that courts are more and more prepared to give permission for these applications and to make an example of witnesses and claimants.

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