Statements of Truth – Court of Appeal Guidance (warning of prison)

Liverpool Victoria Insurance Company Ltd v Zafar [2019] EWCA Civ 392

See Gordon Exall’s Civil Litigation Brief blog:

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  • We say at once, however, that the deliberate or reckless making of a false statement in a document verified by a statement of truth will usually be so inherently serious that nothing other than an order for committal to prison will be sufficient. That is so whether the contemnor is a claimant seeking to support a spurious or exaggerated claim, a lay witness seeking to provide evidence in support of such a claim, or an expert witness putting forward an opinion without an honest belief in its truth…
  • The essential feature of this form of contempt of court is the making of a false statement without an honest belief in its truth. In principle, where a false statement is made without an honest belief in its truth, a contemnor who acts recklessly is less culpable than one who acts intentionally. The extent of that difference in culpability will, however, depend on all the circumstances of the case. Without seeking to lay down an inflexible rule, we take the view that an expert witness who recklessly makes a false statement in a report or witness statement verified by a statement of truth will usually be almost as culpable as an expert witness who does so intentionally. This is so, because the expert witness knows that the court and the parties are dependent on his or her being truthful, and has made a declaration which asserts that he or she is aware of his or her duties to the court and has complied with them…. To abuse the trust placed in an expert witness by putting forward a statement which is in fact false, not caring whether it be true or not, is usually almost as serious a contempt of court as telling a deliberate lie.
  • As we have indicated, an order for committal to prison will usually be inevitable where an expert witness commits this form of contempt of court…. As to the appropriate length of sentence, it is important to emphasise that every case will turn on its particular facts. The conduct involved in a contempt of this kind may vary across a wide range. The court must, therefore, have in mind that the two year maximum term has to cater for that range of conduct, and must seek to impose a sentence in the instant case which sits appropriately within that range. Where more than one contemnor is before the court, as in the present case, it will of course be necessary to make a judgment as to the comparative seriousness of their respective misconduct…. the Lord Chief Justice in Bashir had in mind as a starting point sentences “well in excess of 12 months” even for those who played the role of “foot soldiers” in the dishonest claims in that case.
  • The court must, finally, consider whether the term of committal can properly be suspended. In this regard, both principle and the caselaw to which we were referred lead to the conclusion that in the case of an expert witness, the appropriate term will usually have to be served immediately, and that one or more powerful factors justifying suspension will have to be shown if the term is to be suspended…
  • We should add that we accept, as was submitted on behalf of the Appellant, that the fact that the relevant false statement was made recklessly rather than intentionally will not in itself usually be a powerful factor in favour of suspending the necessary term of committal.
  • With all respect to the judge, however, we are satisfied that the order for committal in this case was wrong in two respects. First, the term of committal should have been significantly longer than 6 months, even taking into account the mitigation available to the Respondent: we do not think the Respondent could have appealed successfully against a term of 12 months, and we cannot think that a term of less than 9 months was appropriate. Secondly, the term should have been ordered to be served immediately, there being no powerful factor in favour of suspending it. We are satisfied that a suspended term of 6 months fell outside the range of sentences which the judge, applying his mind to all the relevant factors, could reasonably consider appropriate.
  • The judge’s decision as to sentence therefore falls to be reversed. We can remake that decision. We have however come to the conclusion that we should not impose a more severe sentence. We have decided not to do so, principally because we have sought in this judgment to give some guidance which was not previously available to those sentencing for contempt of court, and we accept that it would be unfair to the Respondent to impose upon him the adverse consequences of that guidance. Accordingly, our remaking of the decision would not result in any increase in the sentence, albeit that our reasons for reaching that outcome differ from those of the judge. In those circumstances we allow the appeal, but think it sufficient to declare that the sentence below was unduly lenient.

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