In our last article, we referred to the unfortunate position that Mrs Byrne found herself in when she was committed to prison for contempt of court. Many readers of the news reports will have been shocked to read that she was given two sentences of three month’s imprisonment to run concurrently. Harsh though this may seem the sentences were described by the judge in his judgment as being ‘short sentences, indeed as short as I can possibly make them, but having thought about them as much as I can, I think that they adequately reflect the authority of the court and also send a clear message of deterrence’. The judge was not prepared to suspend the sentence but did say that Mrs Byrne would only need to serve one half of the period in custody and would be released shortly before Christmas and her birthday. He also reminded her that she could apply to purge her contempt. But why was the punishment so severe?
The judge referred to certain guidelines for sentencing laid down by the Court of Appeal in 2000 being:
The judge went on to say that:
The judge took into account a number of mitigating factors put forward on behalf of Mrs Byrne, not least that she was a woman of good character who had made a positive contribution to society; was in her mid 60’s; had certain health issues; she had not given untruthful evidence; and her contempt had arisen ‘principally out of a sense of misplaced loyalty’ to her elder brother but he found that:
Whenever considering sentencing for contempt the judge has got to give careful thought to whether or not there should be a coercive element within the sentence. In this case the judge did not feel it appropriate to include a coercive element.
The judge came to this conclusion having carefully considered what was said in an early ‘Russian oligarch’ case about sentencing in this field:
Many people going through divorce proceedings may feel that it is easy to disobey court orders and get away with it. This case shows that the court does expect its orders to be complied with and will not tolerate non compliance.