A judge had no choice but to jail an 83-year-old after he spent years deliberately frustrating the courts, according to a barrister in the divorce case.
The sentencing of millionaire property developer John Hart created media headlines earlier this month. The pensioner was given 14 months for contempt of court after repeatedly refusing to hand over business documents following his long-running divorce case.
Judge Stephen Wildblood QC took the unusual step of handing down a prison sentence after describing Mr Hart as an “exceptionally poor and untruthful witness”.
The judge said he had made every attempt to stop the contempt reaching crisis point but “orders of the court and the rule of law must be observed”.
In June 2015, four years after divorce proceedings began, Mr Hart was ordered to hand over £3.5m of their £9.4m wealth to his wife of 24 years, Karen Hart. As part of that she was also awarded his shares in Drakestown Properties Limited – a company owning two estates of industrial units in the West Midlands.
The shares were transferred, making her the owner of the company. But Mr Hart had “done his utmost to frustrate her ability to run it efficiently and effectively” as he “bitterly resents” that the company had been transferred to his former wife, said the judge.
After delaying the transfer, Hart and his staff “stripped out” management records, leaving behind only two bank statements and a collection of licences and leases.
Mr Hart was ordered on two occasions, in February and July 2016, to provide information to his ex-wife, but failed to co-operate, leaving Mrs Hart with difficulties in her management of the company.
Frustrate the courts
Judge Wildblood said: “This is a man who has received repeated warnings already that he must comply with court orders and he has chosen, repeatedly, not to do so.”
After being sentenced, Mr Hart is now on bail pending appeal on April 18.
Barrister Peter Mitchell has represented Mrs Hart since 2014 and believes the court was left with no alternative action.
Mr Mitchell told Merrick Solicitors: “A jail sentence following civil contempt is rare as is the jailing of an octogenarian. Therefore this makes for a very unusual case. But Mr Hart has been an exceptionally difficult litigant. He has done everything possible to frustrate the courts over many years.”
The judge praised Mr Hart’s ex-wife for being “exceptionally patient” in the proceedings and Mr Mitchell said she took no pleasure from his plight.
He said: “She was upset, she wasn’t looking for her ex-husband to go to jail. But she has had to fight him every step of the way. Three years after finishing litigation he’s still making it impossible for her to move on with her life.”
Barrister Peter Mitchell
Mr Mitchell said despite the judge’s strong stance he did not believe courts were getting tougher on those who try to block justice.
He said: “There have always been a corpus of litigants who are as difficult as they can be. It is incredibly frustrating for the courts because it is unnecessary.
Mr Mitchell, of London’s 29 Bedford Row Chambers, said: “It is both professionally challenging and extremely interesting, I’ve never been in a case like this before.”
Loss of relationship
The judge, sitting at the High Court in Bristol, said prison would have a “marked effect” on Mr Hart. He added: “Mr Hart has not only lost some of the money which he holds so dear, but he has also experienced the loss of his relationship with his former wife and children.
“From the upbeat, proud and canny businessman that I first saw three years ago, he is now an isolated and sad man seemingly unable to enjoy for his remaining years the millions of pounds that he still owns.”
Commenting on the case, Amanda Merrick, principal at Merrick Solicitors, said the parties involved had the means to fight on until justice was done. That would not be the case for the majority who found themselves in a similar position.
She said: “In most cases there aren’t the assets to justify a protracted fight. In these circumstances when faced with attempts by one party to avoid the other’s claims, commerciality often dictates defeat before a fair and proper outcome can be achieved.
“These incidences are only going to increase as the decision-making process becomes more stream-lined to accommodate a system that is failing for want of proper funding.”
The judge said the ”unnecessarily protracted litigation” had placed an immense burden on public funds in terms of court time and this would continue as a result of Mr Hart’s incarceration.
Miss Merrick added: “Perhaps this case should now encourage a more robust approach by the courts at a much earlier stage in financial remedy proceedings, particularly when faced with an obviously recalcitrant litigant like Mr Hart.
“Obligations regarding disclosure and compliance with court orders are fundamental to the Family Court’s decision-making process.
“To those parties who think the rules don’t apply to them the message should surely be loud and clear from the outset, not after nearly seven years of litigation.”