Committal Orders For Civil Contempt - The Last Weapon Available?
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that, under
the law of certain states in the US, individuals can be held in
jail for seemingly indefinite periods for contempt in the civil
courts, without ever receiving a criminal
McCann and Ruth Lane of
Peters & Peters consider the position under English law.
The Wall Street Journal highlighted the case of a Mr H.
Beatty Chadwick, a former Philadelphia based lawyer who was ordered
to make a payment of $2.5 million into court in the course of his
own divorce proceedings. Thus far, Mr Chadwick has not managed to
persuade the Delaware Court that he cannot comply with that order
and has therefore languished in prison for civil contempt for the
last 14 years.
Under US and English law, civil judges have the power to commit
a party to serve a term of imprisonment for contempt of civil
Injunctions prohibit a Respondent from engaging in certain
activity (e.g. disposing of assets under a freezing injunction) or
require certain steps to be taken (e.g. to provide information
about what has become of certain assets under the
"tracing" information provisions of a freezing order), or
comprise a combination of positive and negative obligations.
Injunctions can be "interim", imposed as a preservative
measure in aid of a final determination, or permanent whereby the
injunction prohibiting certain conduct or activity is itself the
actual relief sought (e.g. to desist infringing intellectual
An intention to breach the order in question is not a necessary
element for a contempt to be proved. Warrington J observed in
Stancomb –v- Trowbridge Urban District Council
 2 Ch 190 at 194:
"If a person or corporation is restrained by injunction
from doing a particular act, that person or corporation commits a
breach of the injunction, and is liable for process of contempt, if
he or it in fact does the act, and it is no answer to say that the
act was not contumacious in the sense that, in doing it, there was
no direct intention to disobey the
In the case of breaches of undertakings given to the Court,
Rimer J in Miller –v- Scorey  2 All ER 18
at 28 held that:
The question of whether or not a contempt in the
nature of a breach of an undertaking to the Court has been
committed involves an essentially objective test, requiring the
determination of whether or not the alleged contemnor has acted in
a manner constituting a breach of his undertaking. If he has, then
a contempt will ordinarily be...
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