If you see the words “habeas corpus”, you know that one of three things is happening :-
(a) you are reading a very old law report or doing a constitutional law exam
(b) you are reading a Perry Mason novel
(c) this is a misconcieved application drawn up by someone who has read some law but doesn’t actually practice it.
Justice for Families Limited and Secretary of State for Justice 2014 is not a Perry Mason novel, nor is it a very old piece of caselaw.
Although it is therefore the latter of the three options, I can see the mischief that it was aimed at tackling. [In effect, a writ of habeas corpus, if granted, is a legal order meaning that whoever is holding person X must release or produce them]
It involves John Hemming MP, though this time in the form of a Director of a Company, Justice for Families, and the Court of Appeal.
Mr Hemming and no doubt the company also, have been concerned for a long time about the people who are imprisoned for breach of family law orders or contempt of court. In this case, they had learned of a woman who had been sent to prison for 28 days, and found that the judgment had not been published on Bailii, which was of course a breach of the guidance that all committal applications should be published.
Mr Hemming, in his capacity as an MP had learned that this was not a rare blemish, but a regular occurance, and had issued this writ as a method of focussing attention upon it.
“It is known from statistics provided by the Ministry of Justice in response to a written parliamentary question asked by myself that there are of the order of 5 people a month imprisoned for contempt for whom there is no published judgment in accordance with the practice direction jointly issued by the President of the Family Division and the Lord Chief Justice on 3rd May 2013 [this is a reference to Practice Guidance (Committal Proceedings: Open Court)  1 WLR 1316]. Hence these people should be properly described as secret prisoners. This is not supposed to happen. It should not have happened on 11th October 2013. The applicant is hoping to obtain an authority from the court of appeal which would assist in preventing this from continuing to happen in the future by making it clear that such imprisonments are unlawful and that an application for a writ of Habeas Corpus must be granted whosoever applies for such a writ and that release from imprisonment would then be expected to follow.”
I think, like the Court of Appeal, that the writ was misconcieved, but it is surely wrong that people should be locked up and the judgment explaining why not published. Obviously, one expects some sort of time lag (the tape has to be sent to transcribers, the transcript done, the judge then approves the transcript and it gets put up) but as we have a practice direction saying that all such judgments must be published, it is wrong that so often they are not. I have some sympathy with Mr Hemming, and whether the application was misconcieved or not (it was), it was an approach that (a) got the case before the President (b) got the President to reinforce that such judgments must be published and (c) will probably get some publicity.
He also highlighted that the Official Solicitors role in reviewing committal cases and searching for injustice seems to have fallen by the wayside, and I think he is right to say that too. [the duty got discharged in November 2012, but what safeguards remain? It seems to be an important function that has ended and not been replaced]
- The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice of receptions into prison for contempt of court, show that in the twelve months from April 2013 to March 2014, a total of 116 contemnors arrived in prison (monthly totals 15, 11, 8, 13, 14, 7, 12, 7, 6, 8, 7, 8). These figures are broken down into County Court (aggregate total 36), Crown Court (5), Magistrates (4), High Court (5) and “Not recorded” (66). Mr Hemming’s point, which appears to be borne out by an analysis he has conducted for us of the committal cases which appear on BAILII, is that for a very large number of these committals there is no judgment to be found on BAILII. This, if true, and every indication is that unhappily it is true, is a very concerning state of affairs.
- Analysis of the problem, and location of responsibility, is not of course assisted by the surprising fact that the available statistics record the type of committing court in less than 50% of the cases: in 66 out of 116 cases the committing court is not recorded.
- Mr Hemming, as we have seen, draws attention to the fact that the Official Solicitor no longer has any responsibilities in relation to contemnors. He suggests that some additional protection is needed for what he calls the secret prisoner, who is at present, he says, insufficiently protected.
- The duties of the Official Solicitor in relation to contemnors had their informal origins even before 1842, when they were put on a formal, albeit non-statutory, basis following the appointment of J J Johnson as Solicitor to the Suitors Fund (as the Official Solicitor was then called). They were put on a statutory basis by the Court of Chancery Act 1860. From 1963 they were to be found spelt out in a Direction to the Official Solicitor issued by Lord Dilhorne LC on 29 May 1963, requiring the Official Solicitor to:
“review all cases of persons committed to prisons for contempt of Court, … take such action as he may deem necessary thereon and … report thereon quarterly on the 31st day of January, the 30th day of April, the 31st day of July and the 31st day of October in every year.”
That Direction remained in force until revoked by the Lord Chancellor on 5 November 2012. Accordingly, as I understand it, the Official Solicitor no longer has a role to play in relation to committal orders which result from contempt of court.
I have said, therefore that I can see that this was a very real problem that John Hemming was attempting to highlight and get the Court to deal with, and that I think it achieved its aim, but it is a drizzy Monday morning, and I think some of my readers might also like to read the interesting exchange when the application was being made.
In particular, enjoy Collins J saying something breathtakingly cool and rude and true all at the same time (underlined for your pleasure)
The application came before Collins J on 6 November 2013. He dismissed the application. He gave no judgment, but the reasons for his decision appear clearly enough from the transcript of the proceedings, which begins with the following exchange:
“MR JUSTICE COLLINS: Can I see if I’ve understand this correctly? You’ve had no contact with the wife, the woman concerned?
MR HEMMING: That’s correct.
THE JUDGE: You don’t even know her name?
MR HEMMING: That’s correct.
MR JUSTICE COLLINS: You don’t even know if she is still in custody?
MR HEMMING: I’m going by press reports that she was given 28 days, but she might not still –
MR JUSTICE COLLINS: Yes she was, Of course, in any contempt proceedings, the contempt can be purged.
MR HEMMING: Of course.
THE JUDGE: And in this case it could be purged by … indicating where the children were.
MR HEMMING: Of course.”
A little later there is this exchange:
“MR JUSTICE COLLINS: … She refused to disclose their whereabouts or told untruths about where they were, and that is what led to the judge deciding as she did. Now there is no question but there is jurisdiction to impose a penalty, including imprisonment, for contempt of that nature because it is a contempt which is an interference with the administration of justice. And, of course, the whole background to this was the protection of children who otherwise would be at risk. Habeas corpus in these circumstances is an entirely misconceived remedy. There is a right of appeal. She was represented, she had legal aid, and she automatically will, even despite the government of which your party is a member and the removal of legal aid in many circumstances, still legal aid exists for an appeal against a committal order because liberty is at stake. So it is difficult to see what really you are doing here.”
Mr Hemming then explained the basis of his application. Collins J responded:
“MR JUSTICE COLLINS: … there is no possible remedy through habeas corpus because habeas corpus only goes to whether there is a lawful sentence and there is a lawful sentence. And there is a right to appeal, an absolute right to appeal.
MR HEMMING: Yes.
MR JUSTICE COLLINS: For which legal aid is granted. She was represented by counsel and solicitors at the hearing before Mrs Justice [Theis]. You come along without any instructions, without having contacted her, without even knowing who she is –
MR HEMMING: Without the ability to contact her. That’s right.
MR JUSTICE COLLINS: You know nothing about the background to the case. And I am afraid this is an interference which is totally unnecessary because her interests are protected by her representation. She may have purged her contempt for all I know.
MR HEMMING: Yes, we don’t know, do we.
MR JUSTICE COLLINS: No, we don’t
MR HEMMING: And that’s the difficulty of the situation of people in prison in secret –
MR JUSTICE COLLINS: You could easily have got a copy of the committal order from the clerk of the rules.
MR HEMMING: So that’s what you recommend, basically.
MR JUSTICE COLLINS: Well, you can get it but I am afraid habeas corpus is hopeless –“
The Court of Appeal do not disagree with Collins J on the merits of the writ of habeas corpus
- There are, in my judgment, two very simple reasons why this appeal is quite hopeless. Each provides a complete answer to the appeal, just as each provided a complete answer to the application before Collins J.
- In the first place, and as Collins J correctly explained, habeas corpus does not lie to challenge a sentence of imprisonment imposed by a court of competent jurisdiction. The proper remedy in such a case is appeal: see ex p Hinds  1 WLR 325, Linnett v Coles  QB 555 and West v HM Prison Bure  EWCA Civ 604. As Lord Goddard CJ said in Re William Oswald Featherstone (1953) 37 Cr App R 146, 147:
“The court does not grant, and cannot grant, writs of habeas corpus to persons who are in execution, that is to say, persons who are serving sentences passed by courts of competent jurisdiction. Probably the only case in which the court would grant habeas corpus would be if it were satisfied that the prisoner was being held after the terms of the sentence passed on him had expired.”
- Secondly, and as I have already pointed out, the mother had been discharged from prison on the expiry of her sentence before the application for habeas corpus was made. Since the only issue on an application for habeas corpus is to determine the legality of the detention, habeas corpus will not lie if the detention has already been brought to an end: Barnardo v Ford  AC 326, and (an authority supplied by Mr Hemming) In re J M Carroll (An Infant)  1 KB 317, 327. As Lord Watson put it in Barnardo (page 333):
“The remedy of habeas corpus is … intended to facilitate the release of persons actually detained in unlawful custody … it is the fact of detention, and nothing else, which gives the Court its jurisdiction.”
- Mr Hemming’s response to the first point is that the hearing before Theis J on 11 October 2013 was not a hearing by a court of competent jurisdiction. In support of this surprising contention he makes two submissions: first, that the court did not have “jurisdiction” because Theis J was acting both as prosecutor and as judge; secondly, that the court was not “competent” because the hearing was not listed.
- As elaborated in his skeleton argument Mr Hemming asserts – perhaps, more accurately, assumes – that, as he put it, the “court” had “moved a motion for committal” and that the court was “sitting in judgment on a motion of its own initiative.” This is simply wrong as a matter of fact. The matter was brought back to court following and because of the arrest of the mother by the Tipstaff. Theis J was sitting to determine whether or not, as reported to the court by the Tipstaff, the mother had breached the collection order and thereby committed a contempt of court. To be fair to Mr Hemming, as soon as we had explained the process in relation to collection orders, he readily accepted that there was no substance in his complaint that the court lacked jurisdiction. Quite plainly, in my judgment, Theis J had jurisdiction on 11 October 2013 in the sense in which Lord Goddard CJ was using the word.
- Mr Hemming supports his alternative complaint that the court was not “competent” by reference to Article 6 of the Convention. The argument, in my judgment, is quite hopeless, whether or not bolstered by reliance upon Article 6. The fact is that Theis J was, as the expression was used by Lord Goddard CJ, sitting on 11 October 2013 as a court of competent jurisdiction. She was sitting in public. The mother was present and represented. The submission that an otherwise competent court was not competent because the hearing was not listed is, with all respect to Mr Hemming, devoid of all merit. I should add that I would have come to precisely the same conclusion even if, contrary to the facts, the hearing on 11 October 2013 had been held in private when it should have been in public: see McPherson v McPherson  AC 177, where the fact that a divorce case which should have been heard in open court was heard in private rendered the resulting decrees nisi and absolute voidable only and not void.
I add one final observation. I would not for myself want to give any credence to the proposition that a failure to sit in open court or a failure to list the case properly or a failure to publish the judgment, suffices of itself to invalidate an otherwise proper committal for contempt, let alone that such a failure can entitle the contemnor to release on a writ of habeas corpus. Mr Hemming has produced no authority in support of the proposition and in my judgment it is fundamentally unsound.
The Court of Appeal judgment tackles a number of important points.
The first is the ability of a third party (ie someone who is not being held captive or prisoner themselves) to seek a writ of habeas corpus
Evidently, there is some provision for a third party to do this, otherwise miscreants could prevent the captive from getting legal remedy by simply holding them so closely that they could not apply. But how close does the relationship between imprisoned party and third party have to be, and what is required?
- In the nature of things, the court must be willing, where circumstances require, to hear an application for habeas corpus brought not by the prisoner but by some third party. For if the court refused to hear such a third party application, a prisoner unable to instruct someone to act for him would be denied a remedy and left to languish in what might be unlawful confinement. As is said in The Law of Habeas Corpus, 237, “If third parties were not allowed to initiate proceedings, a captor acting unlawfully would only have to hold his prisoner in especially close custody to prevent any possibility of recourse to the courts.”
- Thus it is clear that it is possible for a third party to make an application for habeas corpus even though acting neither as the agent of the prisoner, nor on his instructions, nor, indeed, even with his knowledge: see, for example, The Case of the Hottentot Venus (1810) 13 East 195, In re Price (1860) 2 F&F 263, and Re Antoni Klimowicz (1954) unreported, to each of which Mr Hemming helpfully referred us. But as the old case of Ex p Child (1854) 15 CB 238 shows, the right of a stranger to apply for habeas corpus is necessarily kept within bounds. As Jervis CJ said:
“A mere stranger has no right to come to the court and ask that a party who makes no affidavit, and who is not suggested to be so coerced as to be incapable of making one, may be brought up by habeas to be discharged from restraint. For anything that appears, Captain Child may be very well content to remain where he is.”
And it is to be noted that the unsuccessful applicant was there ordered to pay the costs of the respondent who had been brought “fruitlessly and unnecessarily” to court.
- The principle in Ex p Child is now to be found stated in RSC Order 54, rule 1, as set out in Schedule 1 to the CPR:
“(2) An application for [a writ of habeas corpus ad subjiciendum] …, subject to paragraph (3) must be supported by a witness statement or affidavit by the person restrained showing that it is made at his instance and setting out the nature of the restraint.
(3) Where the person restrained is unable for any reason to make the witness statement or affidavit required by paragraph (2) the witness statement or affidavit may be made by some other person on his behalf and that witness statement or affidavit must state that the person restrained is unable to make the witness statement or affidavit himself and for what reason.”
Mr Hemming’s witness statement failed to comply with the latter requirement.
- In what circumstances, then, is a third party application appropriate? Given the vital importance of the remedy and the infinite variety of possible situations – as the facts of each of the four cases I have just referred to so strikingly illustrate – it would be unwise to be too prescriptive. The court must be flexible. That said, I would expect most cases where a third party application is appropriate to be either (as in Price and Klimowicz) cases where the prisoner is incommunicado or (as in The Hottentot Venus) cases where, to quote the language of The Law of Habeas Corpus, 238, “the impediment preventing the prisoner from acting [is] ignorance or disability rather than close physical custody.”
- In the present case neither principle applies. The mother was not held incommunicado. There was no impediment to her acting: she had counsel. Collins J was fully justified in expressing himself as he did. Mr Hemming’s complaint that the mother was being held, “incommunicado”, as a “secret prisoner” whose name was not known, was true only in the sense that neither the appellant nor Mr Hemming had made any effective attempt to discover her name
To be fair to Mr Hemming, he encountered a problem that many others will have encountered – an inflexibility with bureacrats to provide information without the Code or Reference number, and an inability to know the Code or Reference number because the judgment giving it had not been published.
- As Collins J correctly observed, Mr Hemming could have obtained a copy of the committal order on application to the Clerk of the Rules. FPR 29.12(2) provides that:
“A copy of an order made in open court will be issued to any person who requests it.”
Mr Hemming’s account of his attempts to obtain a copy of the committal order is vague and lacking in detail. He says that those acting for the appellant “spent some time wandering around the Royal Courts of Justice visiting the Family Division registry and talking to inter alia Jimmy in the Urgent applications court and the clerk to Justice Theis.” He insinuates, without asserting in so many words, that he was unable to obtain the committal order because he knew neither the case number nor the names of the parties to the case.
- As to that I propose to say only this. Plainly the court cannot be expected to embark upon an extensive and time-consuming trawl of its files to identify an order where the applicant is unable to identify what it is he is seeking. But here, Mr Hemming knew both the date of the committal order and the name of the judge who had made it. An applicant seeking a copy of the order, to which, I emphasise, he is entitled under FPR 29.12(2), should not be sent away empty-handed merely because he does not know the number of the case or the names of the parties. The court can, and should, supply a copy of a committal order, even if the applicant cannot provide those details, where the applicant is able to provide sufficient details of the case to enable the order to be located by the court without undue difficulty, for example, as here, the date of the order and the name of the judge.
- I add, for the avoidance of doubt, that when I refer to the court in this context I mean the court office. Applications under FPR 29.12(2) should be directed to the appropriate court office and not to the judge or judge’s clerk.
The other tangled issue the Court tackle is that of right of audience. Mr Hemming is not a lawyer and does not have rights of audience to present the case to Court. There was quite a clever device to get around this – Mr Hemming was effectively being a litigant in person through the vehicle of being a director of a company that has been set up in part for the purpose of tackling injustice in family cases (as can be seen through its name)
- CPR 39.6 provides that:
“A company or other corporation may be represented at trial by an employee if –
(a) the employee has been authorised by the company or corporation to appear at trial on its behalf; and
(b) the court gives permission.”
Paragraph 5.2 of CPR PD 39A provides that:
“Where a party is a company or other corporation and is to be represented at a hearing by an employee the written statement should contain the following additional information:
(1) The full name of the company or corporation as stated in its certificate of registration.
(2) The registered number of the company or corporation.
(3) The position or office in the company or corporation held by the representative.
(4) The date on which and manner in which the representative was authorised to act for the company or corporation, e.g. _19_: written authority from managing director; or _19_: Board resolution dated _19_.”
- The letters dated 4 November 2013 and 18 February 2014, signed, it is to be noted, by Mr Hemming, are inadequate. Neither complies with paragraph 5.2(4). Each is, in reality, no more than an assertion by the signatory that he is acting with the agreement of the board, an entirely self-serving statement unsupported by any independent evidence that he does indeed have that authority. CPR PD 30A, para 5.2 is there to be complied with. There is no excuse in the present case, where the court had specifically directed attention to it. As a matter of indulgence we agreed to hear the appeal. Our indulgence on this occasion is not to be taken as any precedent.
- We have not overlooked the principle, explained in The Law of Habeas Corpus, Farbey and Sharpe, ed 3, 2011, 238-239, that applications for habeas corpus are usually required to be made by counsel (now, a qualified advocate with higher court rights). Our agreement to hear Mr Hemming in this case is not to be taken as in any way weakening that long-established practice.
We shall wait and see whether the President’s words here make any difference to the publication of committal judgments – I would be surprised if Mr Hemming does not doggedly pursue (and rightly so) whether this problem has been resolved or whether despite the Practice Direction and the President’s words, committals continue to take place without transparent judgments being published.