Can the Court of Protection send me to jail? The Sequel
Regular readers of the blog will remember when Shaun Hill was jailed for breaching an injunction the Court of Protection had put in place to protect his father. New readers can find our discussion of that case here .
In this case, Imre Stalter was at risk of a jail sentence for breaching Orders designed to give privacy to a vulnerable lady and other parties in the case.
As the Judge so rightly comments, “the case as it has developed raises a variety of interesting legal issues but at its heart is a sad human story”. Indeed.
KR was born in the 1930s and Mr Stalter was born in the 1950s. They met in 2011 and developed a relationship of affection and companionship. They tried to marry in 2013 and 2014 but it seems that KR was not able to satisfy the Registrar that she had the capacity to marry. They continued to live together and Mr Stalter cared for her. The Judge at first instance found that it was an “affectionate, consensual relationship”. KR’s health deteriorated, she went to hospital and then moved to a care home. The Judge found that this was something that she wanted. At that time concerns were raised about the nature of the relationship between Mr Stalter and KR and his handling of KR’s finances and personal welfare. Since KR’s admission to hospital, the couple had not shared a home and had very limited contact. Mr Stalter seems to have been arrested around that point although it is not clear what for. Consequently Mr Stalter was not able to return to KR’s home, or to have contact with her, but that was changed by the Judge at first instance to allow limited contact from then on.
Orders were made under the Transparency Pilot saying that “the fact that KR was subject to proceedings was not to be published, nor were the identities of other parties to be published, nor was any information tending to identify those individuals as a patient or parties to be published, nor were their addresses or contact details to be published”.
Mr Stalter seems to have sent a number of emails breaching these conditions, copying in the Court and the Public Guardian, and the Public Guardian asked for him to be committed to prison. Just after this, DJ Batten delivered her judgment which made various findings against Mr Stalter in relation to how he had handled KR’s finances and the care he had provided to her.
There was some to-ing and fro-ing over the papers because there had been two committal orders. There were also some issues about whether Mr Stalter had been served with the committal applications. However, Mr Stalter did not take any technical points about the papers or service but rather was very frank that he had communicated the information. He accepted he should not have done so and said he would not do so in the future.
The Judge said “It is in part at least as a result of the pragmatic approach that Mr Stalter has taken to the issue of procedural defects that twenty-five allegations remain and twenty-five allegations have been established. I think that tells me a lot about Mr Stalter’s current approach to these proceedings which will I think have some significant bearing on the issue of what disposal ought to be imposed as a result of my finding that he is in contempt of court”. He concluded that Mr Stalter did not need to be committed to jail, as he had confirmed he would abide by the Order, and that “no punishment was appropriate having regard to the extent to which Mr Stalter had already suffered as a result of the situation”.
It is vital that we don’t lose sight of the human tragedy at the heart of many of these cases.
In this particular case there were some irregularities about which Order had been cited on the committal application and whether Mr Stalter had been served. The Judge made it very clear that in order to be committed a person needed to have been given very precise information about which Order they had breached and the way in which they were supposed to have breached it. That needs to be set out very clearly on the face of the document. Further terms cannot be implied. In order to be in contempt of Court, a person needs to deliberately disobey the Order. The person asking for committal needs to be able to show that the person was able to do what the Order said. Contempt of Court needs to be proved to the criminal standard, i.e; beyond reasonable doubt. It must be absolutely clear to this standard of proof what the person has done or not done that has breached the Order.
It is also important that the person knows before they do or fail to do something that they could be jailed for that.
There was a question of whether Mr Stalter had in fact been served with the right paperwork at the right time. The Judge took the view though that as he had been at the hearing, and had heard what had happened, he knew what he should or shouldn’t do and so the requirement to serve him personally was dispensed with. The Judge also waived the technical defect caused by the mix up over the two Orders. That allowed 25 of the 26 alleged breaches to be considered. The other breach involved Mr Stalter publishing sensitive personal information about KR. That was not actually something prohibited by the Order and so that breach did not stand.
The Judge was at pains to make sure that Mr Stalter had help from an interpreter and was legally represented. The Judge made the point that Mr Stalter could have taken a whole raft of technical points but she much preferred the fact that he made a frank admission of what he had done and said that he would not do it again. If he does do it again, I would expect to see a new application for committal to jail from the Public Guardian which would probably have a very different outcome.