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Substantial compensation secured for wrongful imprisonment

Mr C spent over four months in prison after being wrongly imprisoned

13 February 2014

A man wrongly imprisoned by a County Court judge for failing to pay money to his ex-wife as part of their divorce proceedings has won substantial damages.

In November 2011, at the committal proceedings, the man known only as Mr C argued that he did not have the money to pay his ex-wife a lump sum of money, and had asked the Judge that he be able to pay the money in instalments instead.

Nonetheless, the Judge committed Mr C, who had no criminal history, to nine months in prison.  He then spent four and a half months in HMP Northallerton, a category C local prison in North Yorkshire.

Benjamin Burrows, a solicitor in the prison law team at Leigh Day, successfully argued on behalf of Mr C that the Judge had made a number of mistakes in deciding to commit Mr C to prison including that the Judge had used the wrong Act, the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which allowed for committal to prison for up to 24 months. 

However, the correct Act, and the Act, which the Judge should have relied upon, was the Debtors Act 1869, which only allowed for committal to prison for up to six weeks. Therefore she did not have the power to commit Mr C to nine months in prison.

The Judge had also not considered the appropriate alternatives available to sending a person to prison, nor had she acknowledged that doing so is often the remedy of last resort in civil cases, particularly in civil family cases.

Mr Burrows from the Prison Law team at Leigh Day, said:

“The result of these mistakes were costly, in that, not only was Mr C wrongfully imprisoned, but the distress and anxiety caused to him by being imprisoned caused an exacerbation of a pre-existing psychiatric illness, as well as loss of income.”

Following his release from prison, Mr C brought a claim in the High Court against the Secretary of State for Justice, who was ultimately responsible for the mistakes made by the Judge. 

Following the commencement of proceedings, the Secretary of State agreed to settle Mr C’s claim and to pay him substantial compensation in respect of the Judge’s mistakes, as well as his reasonable legal costs.

Mr Burrows concluded:

“Mr C experience of being imprisoned wrongly and for four and a half months was a horrendous one.  The compensation he has received will go some way to making up for this, and he can now try to put this particularly distressing part of his life behind him.

“Mr C’s case highlights the fact that judges have considerable power, and that their decisions can have significant and detrimental consequences on a person’s life. 

“For many years, when they have made the wrong decisions, judges have been immune from such civil actions for compensation.  However, Mr C’s case suggests that this is no longer the case, and that judges, the same as the people they are judging, can be, and should be, held to account for their actions”.

Mr C was represented in his claim by Adam Straw of Doughty Street Chambers, a recognised expert in prison and human rights law.  He was also in receipt of legal aid funding.

Please contact Benjamin Burrows for further details.

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