You may have come across this in the newspapers when it happened a while back, that during a Court hearing relating to a dispute over children, the father assaulted the mother and when the Court Clerk intervened, the father assaulted him as well.
The committal hearing for an application to commit Mr Ramet for contempt in the face of the Court was listed to be heard by the President of the Family Division and that judgment has now been published. (Mr Ramet can be named, as happens with all committal cases, even though that indirectly identifies the children who are the subject of proceedings)
In terms of the facts of what happened, those are not in dispute
- I return to Southend. Judge Roberts has been describing Mr Ramet, his evidence and his closing submissions:
“he made no reference at all to the overwhelming mass of evidence, which was critical of his own conduct … [he] has focused on his own feelings … and finds it very difficult to see any fault on his own part.”
Having referred to a report by a CAFCASS officer in 2007, she continues “If Mr Ramet had listened to that advice then, and since then, the situation may not be as it currently is. He did not”. Having referred to another expert report from 2011, she says “I accept all this expert evidence, and it is of huge regret that that advice was not followed.” She now turns to the mother. She says
“I found [her] to be sensible, reasonable and thoughtful. I have read the older reports, and it is clear to me that she has listened to much of the advice she has been given.”
At that point the transcript abruptly ends. What has happened?
- Mr Ramet has got up, as if to leave court, but in fact he attacks the mother, grabs her, repeatedly punches her about the head with his clenched fist, grabbing her hair and kicking her after she has fallen to the floor. The court clerk gallantly goes to her assistance, being assaulted by Mr Ramet for his pains. Mr Ramet is restrained. Order is restored. Judge Roberts adjourns. Mr Ramet is arrested. He is charged and appears in the Magistrates’ Court, where he indicates that he pleads guilty. He is remanded in custody for trial in the Crown Court.
The President begins the case by talking about how long this particular private law case has been going on (ten years – the parents separated in 2003 and began the litigation immediately, and the child who was three is now thirteen) and makes reference to the many other authorities that deplore that such important issues are taking so long to resolve and that more must be done.
Prior to the committal proceedings, Mr Ramet appeared in the criminal court charged with assaulting the mother, and assaulting the court clerk. He pleaded guilty to both offences and received a 20 month prison sentence.
The Judge in the Crown Court was alive to the sensitivities of the family court, the frustrations that arise and the need for parties to contain their understandable high emotions
15. “It is hard to imagine any case for assault taking place within a courtroom which did not cause it to be within the most serious of that type of offence and the reason is quite clear.
In a criminal court it is entirely appropriate to be acting in a secure atmosphere. There is a dock. There is a considerable presence by way of security, if necessary. Family proceedings cannot operate in that way. The family court cannot operate in that way. It is, of its very nature, less structured, somewhat less formal, and in cases where the emotional temperature is inevitably high. Parties are going to be in close proximity to each other. That increases the risk of matters such as that which occurred on this occasion happening. It also increases the responsibility of people involved in such proceedings to keep their emotions in trim, to act with appropriate dignity, not to lose their temper and the court will always act by way of deterrent sentences to ensure that proceedings which needs to be conducted in a proper dignified and non-violent matter. Where they are interrupted, the courts will act entirely appropriately to punish those who act in that way.”
The President indicates that he agrees entirely with these remarks.
The interesting aspect in this case, over and above it being a clear marker that persons who commit assaults within a court room can expect to be imprisoned as a result, was how the Court dealing with the committal for contempt should proceed, in light of the fact that a criminal court had already dealt with, and sentenced, Mr Ramet for the very same actions.
- The other point on which Mr Jerman addressed me was as to the approach to be adopted by the family court where, as here, the same conduct has given rise to both criminal proceedings and committal proceedings, something that has been considered in a number of authorities. The first five decisions, in Smith v Smith  2 FLR 55, Hale v Tanner (Practice Note)  1 WLR 2377, Director of Public Prosecutions v Tweddell  EWHC Admin 188,  2 FLR 400, Lomas v Parle (Practice Note)  EWCA Civ 1804,  1 WLR 1642, and H v O (Contempt of Court: Sentencing)  EWCA Civ 1691,  2 FLR 329, were all surveyed in masterly fashion by Wilson LJ, as he then was, in Slade v Slade  EWCA Civ 748,  1 WLR 1262. I cannot improve on his analysis and do not take up time repeating what he said.
- All I need do here is extract a few propositions which are particularly apposite in the present case, where the criminal proceedings have already concluded:
i) First, as Balcombe LJ indicated in Smith v Smith, page 64, my task is to sentence for the contempt – the matters arising under sections 14 and 118 of the 1984 Act – rather than for the crimes.
ii) Second, I must take into account the outcome of the Crown Court proceedings. As it was put by Thorpe LJ in Lomas v Parle, para 48, “It is essential that the second court should be fully informed of the factors and circumstances reflected in the first sentence.”
iii) Third, a person is not to be punished twice for the same conduct. So, as Wilson LJ put it in Slade v Slade, para 21, “the second court should … decline to sentence for such of the conduct as has already been the subject of punishment in the criminal court.” What I must do “is to sentence only for such conduct as was not the subject of the criminal proceedings.”
- In the light of these principles, Mr Jerman’s submission was simple and, in my judgment, unanswerable. Having regard (a) to the charges to which Mr Ramet pleaded guilty in the Crown Court and those to which he pleaded guilty before me and (b) to the way in which he was sentenced in the Crown Court by Judge Lodge, there is no further sentence that I can properly impose on Mr Ramet. In relation to the whole of the conduct with which I am concerned, Mr Ramet has already been prosecuted and sentenced. He is not to be punished twice for the same conduct.
- In relation to the assault on the court clerk the point is really very simple. Before the Crown Court Mr Ramet was convicted of, and sentenced for, an assault (common assault) on the clerk. Before me he is summonsed for having “hit” the clerk in circumstances constituting an “assault” within the meaning of section 14(1) of the 1984 Act. Insofar as section 14(1) involves an additional ingredient – an assault on the clerk “while in the execution of his duty” – that factor was taken into account by Judge Lodge (“insofar as the clerk to the court was concerned … this was an offence committed against those working in the public sector”).
- In relation to the assault on the mother, the point is perhaps slightly more complex but the final outcome is the same. Before the Crown Court Mr Ramet was convicted of, and sentenced for, an assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Before me he is summonsed for having “attacked” his victim in circumstances bringing him within the reach of section 118(1) of the 1984 Act. There were here, judged from the perspective of the law of contempt, two aspects to what Mr Ramet did: first, there was the disturbance in the court room – a contempt in the face of the court irrespective of the identity of his victims; second, there was the retaliatory attack on the mother, as his opponent in the proceedings, which is a criminal contempt of court irrespective of where it occurs. Now whatever the ambit of the statutory contempt under section 118, a matter on which there is no need for me to express any view (though see R v Bloomsbury County Court ex p Brady (1987) Times 16 December), it is clear that every aspect of possible contempt was taken into account by Judge Lodge (“She was in a courtroom, she was there as your ex-partner in proceedings which were being taken in respect of your son … Location is the most serious aggravating feature”).
- I conclude therefore that it would be wrong as a matter of principle for me to impose any additional sentence on Mr Ramet. To do so would be to punish him twice for the same conduct.
If this situation does ever arise again, the timing of the subsequent litigation is important – it would seem sensible for the Crown Court case to be dealt with first, to deal with the element of the actions which are a criminal offence and only if there are residual matters which were not dealt with as a criminal offence but WERE capable of being contempt, should a committal hearing go ahead. It is also seems that this would be quite a compelling argument to adjourn any committal proceedings where the actions complained of are also being dealt with by the criminal courts.
The obvious negative consequence of the committal hearing is that it ends up identifying the child, who would ordinarily be entitled to anonymity. In this case, the child’s privacy and the mother’s privacy was lost, to little tangible benefit, given that the criminal court had already sentenced Mr Ramet for his criminal behaviour.
(The President indicated that IF there had not been a criminal prosecution, he would undoubtedly have found that Mr Ramet had been in contempt and wished to deliver a sentence of imprisonment which was longer than the contempt powers provide for)
- Before passing from this case there are a number of other matters I need to address.
- The first relates to the appropriate sentencing of persons guilty of behaviour such as Mr Ramet’s. Those guilty of violent disorder in a court and those who resort to actual physical violence against a person in court can expect an immediate and lengthy custodial sentence. I agree with Judge Lodge that deterrent sentences are justified in such cases, so as to ensure, insofar as the law can, both that the proper administration of justice is not impeded and that persons attending the court can do so without fear. Where there is serious violence – such as would amount to actual bodily harm or worse – consideration should be given, as in the present case, to inviting the appropriate authorities to consider bringing criminal proceedings in the Crown Court.
- It is in this context that I have to express serious concerns about the adequacy – in fact, in my opinion, the utter inadequacy in modern conditions – of the statutory penalties available under the 1984 Act. So far as concerns the family justice system I accordingly invite the Family Procedure Rules Committee to consider whether there is some way in which, compatibly with the provisions of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, District Judges, Circuit Judges and Recorders can be given powers more extensive than those currently available to them in these cases.
The President also drew attention to the difficulties that Mr Ramet had in obtaining public funding for the committal proceedings – clearly given that his liberty was at stake, he ought to have received public funding, but the provisions for providing free legal advice for committal proceedings in CIVIL cases is problematic. The President worked out a clever way around this, which may be worth knowing and borrowing in future cases.
- I turn to legal aid, public funding. In Re Jennifer Marie Jones  EWHC 2579 (Fam), para 43, I referred to what, as I was told, seemed to be the limited availability of public funding in contempt cases. Whatever the limitations of civil funding, public funding in contempt cases is available under the criminal scheme. The key provision is regulation 9(v) of the Criminal Legal Aid (General) Regulations 2013, SI 2013/9, which says:
“The following proceedings are criminal proceedings for the purposes of section 14(h) of the [Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012] (criminal proceedings) –
(v) any other proceedings that involve the determination of a criminal charge for the purposes of Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
The effect of the decision of the Court of Appeal in Hammerton v Hammerton  EWCA Civ 248,  2 FLR 1133, is that this covers all proceedings for contempt of court, whether criminal or civil in nature and whether arising in the context of criminal, civil or family proceedings.
- Because this is criminal public funding, it can be ordered by the court. So, in the present case I made an order on 28 November 2013 granting Mr Ramet legal aid for solicitor and junior counsel. A detailed analysis of the scheme can be found in the judgment of Blake J in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Council v Bunning (Legal Aid Agency interested party)  EWHC 3390 (QB), to which I would invite the attention of all family judges and practitioners.
Finally, because there had been an issue with serving Mr Ramet in prison and allegations that prison staff had been difficult and had taken the papers off him before he could properly consider them, the President sets down this marker – again, it may be worth borrowing should this situation arise in other cases
- There is one final matter to which I must draw attention. As I have already mentioned, there were difficulties in serving Mr Ramet because he was in prison. Service was eventually effected by the expedient of having him brought to the Royal Courts of Justice on 7 November 2013 pursuant to a production order and served by the Tipstaff. Mr Jerman tells me on instructions that the papers were removed from Mr Ramet on his return to prison and not returned to him until a day or two before the hearing on 28 November 2013. He also tells me that there were, despite what I had said in court on that occasion, difficulties in arranging access in prison to Mr Ramet by his legal team, with the consequence that proper instructions could not be taken until Mr Ramet’s arrival at court on 17 December 2013.
- Recognising that I have not thought it appropriate to conduct any kind of investigation into these matters, and that I accordingly have only one side of the story, I must nonetheless record my concerns. Prisoners have a constitutional right of access to the court, the obstruction of which may be a contempt of court: Raymond v Honey  1 AC 1. Mr Ramet was facing penal proceedings before me: denial of access to the papers which the court itself, acting by the Tipstaff, had served on him and preventing adequate access to his lawyers, if indeed that is what happened, are very serious matters. I trust there will be no future occasion when I have to express such concerns.