Contempt of Court – Solicitors Beware!
Posted on 14th October 2020
In our previous blog we explained the seriousness of signing a Statement of Truth in a court document, especially following a change in the rules and wording of a Statement of Truth on 6th April 2020.
One of the consequences of falsely verifying a document is that it can lead to contempt of court proceedings which in turn can carry sanctions including imprisonment.
Lawyers go to great lengths to emphasis to their clients the serious implications before they put their signature on a Statement of Truth, but what happens when the solicitor gets it wrong?
Authority to Sign Statements of Truth
Parties who can sign a Statement of Truth are set out in section 3 of the Practice Direction to the Civil Procedure Rules (“CPR”) 22.
In particular clause 3.7 states:
“Where a party is legally represented, the legal representative may sign the statement of truth on his behalf. The statement signed by the legal representative will refer to the client’s belief, not his own. In signing he must state the capacity in which he signs and the name of his firm where appropriate.”
In addition clause 3.8 further provides that:
“Where a legal representative has signed a statement of truth, his signature will be taken by the court as his statement:
- that the client on whose behalf he has signed had authorised him to do so,
- that before signing he had explained to the client (through an interpreter where necessary) that in signing the statement of truth he would be confirming the client’s belief that the facts stated in the document were true, and
- that before signing he had informed the client of the possible consequences to the client if it should subsequently appear that the client did not have an honest belief in the truth of those facts”
Given the above, caution should be exercised before any solicitor deems it necessary to verify a Statement of Truth on behalf of a client. A recent case has highlighted the perils for a solicitor.
North of England Coachworks Limited v Khan (2020)
This is a case which was concerned with a Statement of Truth on counter-schedules to defence of the first defendant, signed by Mr Khan’s solicitors on his behalf. The Claimant brought contempt of court proceedings on the basis that some of the entries in the counter-schedules were false.
Admissions were made in a basis of plea document. He also accepted that not only were the statements made false but were made ‘knowingly false’.
The case was heard by Mr Justice Griffiths who highlighted that for a contempt of court in relation to a statement of truth, the criteria was:
- a) The facts verified were false
- b) It interferes (or if persists is likely to interfere) with the course of justice in some material respects
- c) The maker of the statement had no honest belief in the truth of the facts and knew of its likelihood to interfere with the course of justice
He criticised the Application Notice and Grounds submitted by the Claimant which were defective in not spelling out the all of the above; in particular there was no reference to point b) above.
The judge did however accept that Mr Khan was “motivated by shame rather than gain” and whilst “that does not excuse what he did…there were cases with worse motives.”
Mr Khan narrowly escaped imprisonment and instead got 10 weeks committal suspended for a year, on the basis that he “has learned his lesson, and presents no particular risk or danger to the public… he recognises his wrongdoing, and is taking significant steps to rehabilitate himself with the help of others. There is no prior history of poor compliance with court orders. There is very strong personal mitigation. It is clear that immediate custody would result in significant harmful impact on his wife and children, and also on his dependent parents. This is not a case in which appropriate punishment can only be achieved by immediate custody.”
The importance of Statements of Truths were re-emphasised by the court:
Perjury and false statements verified by statements of truth are very serious indeed. Litigants and others should be terrified of the consequences if they lie to the court, whether on oath, or backed with the modern solemnity of a statement of truth. So much of the process of justice depends on evaluating contested assertions, or on accepting uncontested assertions, that it is a point of the greatest possible importance that everyone, honest and dishonest alike, should be in no doubt that lying to the court is not an option. For those who are honest and conscientious, it is to be expected as a matter of principle that lies will not be told in the formal context of verification by a statement of truth. But for those who are slapdash or even dishonest, it is right that the consequences of saying, verified by a statement of truth, something untrue – knowingly or recklessly untrue – should be severe enough to demonstrate that it is also against their own interests to do it, and unthinkable, for that reason too, that they should do it. Not only punishment, but also deterrence, comes into play.
It is important to note that by the time of the application, Mr Khan had instructed new solicitors to the ones who signed the Statement of Truth on his behalf.
Where a dispute arises over a Statement of Truth signed by a solicitor on behalf of their client, this will clearly put into question and risk of the ongoing relationship between the parties. Also, it may give rise to potential negligence allegations if the advice was lacking or insufficient.
Therefore a solicitor should always ensure that, where possible, a client signs their own Statement of Truth. If this is not possible, all advice in respect of the signing and implications of the Statement of Truth should be clearly recorded in writing.
Incidentally the procedure rules for contempt of court proceedings (CPR 81) was updated on 1 October 2020.
If you’re seeking legal advice relating to signing a Statement of Truth please call our highly experienced Dispute Resolution experts on 0808 231 6369 to talk through your situation with us. Alternatively, you can request a call back or get in touch online.