No contempt of court following conservatory dispute

A “misconceived” attempt to seek permission to bring committal proceedings failed in the High Court last week (20 July 2016): Chaudhry and Fletcher v Harper and Whetstone.


The application by the two Claimants arose out of a small claims hearing in Edmonton County Court in 2015, in which Anglian Windows, the nationwide conservatory company, had successfully claimed damages and costs of some £3,000 against Mr Fletcher.


Mr Fletcher had ordered a conservatory from Anglian but had cancelled the order in breach of contract. The central issue in the County Court case was whether Mr Fletcher had given Mr Chaudhry, his uncle, authority to sign key documents relating to the conservatory project in Mr Fletcher’s absence. The Judge at the small claims hearing, Deputy District Judge Goodman, accepted the hearsay evidence of Ian Harper, Anglian’s surveyor, and the live evidence of Barry Whetstone, regional sales manager, that Mr Fletcher had given such authority, contrary to the assertions of Mr Fletcher and Mr Chaudhry.


Rather than appeal that decision, Mr Fletcher and Mr Chaudhry decided to apply for permission to issue committal proceedings, with the ultimate aim of imprisoning Mr Whetstone and Mr Harper for contempt of court.


Unsurprisingly, the law sets a high test when considering whether to deprive a witness of his liberty, particularly when, as in this case, a witness has been found to have given honest evidence, and in the absence of any new material to cast doubt on that finding. In the High Court, Mr Chaudhry and Mr Fletcher relied on DDJ Goodman’s finding that Anglian’s witnesses were probably wrong in their evidence that another colleague had attended the survey to suggest that Anglian’s witnesses were dishonest. In the High Court, Irwin J said that such a situation did not support an allegation of dishonesty, and in any event the presence or absence of the colleague was not a central issue in the case.


Irwin J also held that, in accepting Anglian’s case, DDJ Goodman had found that Mr Fletcher had been lying. Further, in the High Court the Claimants attempted to adduce evidence from two witnesses who had not given evidence in the small claims hearing, but whose evidence was available at that time. This, Irwin J held, was a collateral challenge to the earlier decision. Such witness evidence would not have been admitted at an appeal so it was not appropriate for the Claimants to attempt to adduce it now.


In conclusion, the application for permission was misconceived and the Learned Judge expressed his surprise that the Claimants had considered it appropriate to attempt to set in motion proceedings for committal to prison of the two Anglian witnesses.


The application was dismissed and Anglian Windows was awarded its costs.


The Defendants were represented by Catherine Urquhart, who had also represented Anglian Windows in the County Court hearing.


Solicitors: Anglian Windows’ in-house legal team.