Private Law
October 2022

05 December 2022
The Defendant, David Duggan, was summoned to attend the High Court, Family Division, to respond to allegations that at a case management hearing within proceedings under the Family Law Act 1996, conducted by telephone on 27 of May 2022, he was, by virtue of his conduct during the hearing, in contempt of court. The summons was issued by the Court of its own motion; it was drafted by the Family Division Liaison Judge for the North Eastern Circuit, Mr Justice Poole.
Duggan, Re (Contempt In the Face of the Court) [2022] EWHC 2529 (Fam)

Procedural issues: The summons was determined in accordance with Part 37 FPR 2010 (as amended), notably Part 37.4 and Part 37.6 and Practice Direction 37A.

The allegations: The summons contained four main allegations against Mr Duggan. It was alleged that at the hearing on 27 May 2022, conducted by telephone by District Judge Keating in the Family Court at Durham [paragraph 8]:

i) After introductory comments from the judge about the conduct of the hearing, he directed abuse at the judge, saying "Who the fuck do you think you are speaking to me like that?";

ii) Having repeatedly spoken over and interrupted District Judge Keating, the District Judge asked Mr Duggan "Will you focus for one minute on what I am saying," he replied, "No. You listen to me, what I'm saying for one minute, mate";

iii) After District Judge Keating had placed Mr Duggan 'on mute' so that she could announce her case management directions uninterrupted, upon un-muting Mr Duggan, he directed further abuse at District Judge Keating, saying, "Get fucked … I'm done with this me, mate";

iv) Having told District Judge Keating that he was recording the hearing for himself and was going to put it "in public", and the Judge having warned him that to do so could be a contempt of court, he replied, "Mate, I'm not bothered what you say".

It was alleged that Mr Duggan had conducted himself in this way, notwithstanding that District Judge Keating had warned him that swearing and abusive behaviour from him was unacceptable [paragraph 9]. Contempt in the face of the court is alleged to have been established because Mr Duggan: i) insulted the judge; ii) was abusive to the judge; iii) disrupted the proceedings; and iv) showed himself unwilling to recognise the authority of the court.

Findings of fact: Mr Duggan admitted the assertions of fact set out above. He told Cobb J that his "head was gone" and that he recognises that he did not behave himself in the hearing. He told Cobb J that having listened to the audio recording, he was "disgusted" by his conduct and sent an e-mail of apology to the Judge. Cobb J was entirely satisfied, to the required standard (i.e., beyond reasonable doubt) that, as a matter of fact, Mr Duggan did indeed address the judge as has been alleged above. Cobb J found that Mr Duggan spoke with great anger and aggression. His language and tone throughout the hearing was inappropriate at times escalating in both intensity and abuse. He was disrespectful to the judge and was also disrespectful to the applicant.

Cobb J was satisfied that the judge had, more than once during the hearing, given Mr Duggan proper warning of the need to control his language and temper. Cobb J had noted that “it is obvious from previous orders in the substantive proceedings that Mr Duggan's mental health was, or may have been, an issue”.

Did the conduct amount to contempt in the face of the court? Cobb J concluded that “while Judges have a degree of tolerance towards emotional displays of frustration or anger in court, and are aware of the problem of stress for parties in family (and other) proceedings, there is no excuse for insulting a judge or repeatedly disrupting a court hearing with outbursts of abuse. This has been recognised from early times to qualify as contempt of court (Arlidge at 10-34 and 10-102)”.

Cobb J determined that “conscious that Mr Duggan suffers from a degree of mental illness, I need to satisfy myself that he could form the required 'mens rea' to be guilty of a contempt in the face of the court (see on this issue R v Butler (Paul) [2005] EWCA 2708)”. Cobb J was satisfied, having regard to the totality of the discourse in the court hearing on 27 May 2022, and on what Mr Duggan had said to Cobb J, that he intended to disrupt, or create a real risk of prejudicing, the administration of justice on 27 May 2022 (see Att-Gen v Sport Newspapers Ltd [1991] 1 W.L.R. 1194 at 1200; [1992] 1 All E.R 503 per Bingham LJ) and/or that this was a foreseeable consequence of his verbal abuse directed at the Judge.

Cobb J was satisfied that Mr Duggan's conduct was both insulting and disrespectful to the judge, offensive to the applicant, undermining of the dignity and authority of the court, and disruptive to the due administration of justice. Cobb J found that it was a contempt in the face of the court.

Sentence: Cobb J highlighted that “Judges fulfil a vitally important public duty; they preside over and decide cases 'without fear or favour, affection or ill-will'. It should not have to be spelled out, but I do so here, that judges are entitled to expect that they can undertake their challenging role, to conduct court hearings, and in the Family Court to make important – sometimes life-changing – decisions for children and their families, without being subjected to abuse either in or out of the court room”.

Cobb J concluded that Mr Duggan's abusive behaviour at the hearing on 27 May 2022 caused a very significant disruption to the proceedings; it caused the judge understandable distress. In Cobb J’s judgment, the only appropriate punishment for such a serious contempt was a term of imprisonment. However, Cobb J accepted that Mr Duggan was at the time of the hearing suffering from a degree of mental ill-health, which is continuing, and while this does not account for his behaviour, Cobb J was satisfied that it exacerbated his stress and anxiety and possibly contributed to his lack of control.

Cobb J imposed a term of imprisonment of 14 days for each of the four proven allegations of contempt, the four terms to run concurrently. Having regard to Mr Duggan's particular situation, his contrition, and his acceptance of the inappropriateness of his behaviour, Cobb J suspended that sentence for a period of 12 months, until 6 October 2023, on condition that he does not conduct himself in any court proceedings in that period in such a way as to be found to be in further contempt of court.

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