Committal for Contempt of Court in open court at Bristol: Bennett
CivilCommittal for Contempt of Court
In the County Court at Bristol
28 September 2021
His Honour Judge Ralton
LiveWest Homes Ltd
- For a summary of the history of these proceedings, reference should be made to my oral judgment – which has hopefully been transcribed by now – given on 29 June 2021 following a hearing of committal proceedings brought by LiveWest Homes Limited against its tenant, Nadine Bennett.
- At that committal hearing, I found all the breaches alleged against Ms Bennett to be proven to the criminal standard and adjourned the proceedings for sentencing and, indeed, there have been subsequent adjournments. It was the hope of this court that Ms Bennett would secure herself legal representation. She has continued to be unsuccessful and appears to have had difficulties trying to come under civil Legal Aid or criminal Legal Aid.
- Be all that as it may, it is now 28 September and Ms Bennett still does not have representation. The court has no confidence that Ms Bennett is going to get any representation and the time has come to proceed, not least otherwise the matters would become stale. Today, I am assisted by Ms Mahmood, counsel for LiveWest Homes Limited, and Ms Bennett represents herself. No further evidence has been taken by the court but I have heard submissions made by Ms Bennett in support of her plea in mitigation, for want of a better description.
- Notwithstanding the previous judgment given by the court, it might be sensible and helpful just to provide the briefest of summaries of how we have got to where we have got to. LiveWest Homes Limited is a provider of social housing. It is the landlord of 10 Wellington Lane, Montpelier in Bristol and Ms Bennett is its tenant.
- LiveWest have been concerned historically that Ms Bennett has been guilty of anti-social behaviour within the meaning of part 1 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 and it brought injunction proceedings for the purposes of protecting the other tenants and visitors to that part of Wellington Lane, in short, to try to protect Ms Bennett’s neighbours and the visitors to those neighbours.
- Those proceedings were brought as long ago as 30 November 2020 and a final injunction order was made by District Judge Watson on 17 December 2020. In addition to the usual injunction provisions made under the 2014 Act, a specific order was made that Ms Bennett was not allowed to permit Sasha Walters to enter the property.
- Mr Sasha Walters appears to have been an emotional partner to Ms Bennett, although, given what Ms Bennett has had to say, it is doubtful that he has been an emotional benefit to her and, indeed, she blames him for the loss of her children via the intervention of social services. In more recent times, it was the ongoing visits by Mr Walters that resulted in the committal proceedings and the committal application before the court, as can be seen by LiveWest’s schedule of allegations all of whom refer to Mr Sasha Walters.
- I have made enquiry of Ms Bennett about Mr Sasha Walters. She says he has not been at the property since March of this year. Indeed, the schedule of allegations stop with 20 March 2021 and, for the avoidance of doubt, no attempt has been made on behalf of LiveWest to suggest that Mr Walters has, again, featured in the neighbourhood since 20 March or since the committal judgment made by this court. That is not to say there may not have been other problems.
- I am also given to understand that LiveWest are pursuing possession proceedings against Ms Bennett and, given the findings made by this court, there is a mandatory ground for possession. No possession order has yet been made by the court. Mandatory grounds of possession do not necessarily result in an outright order for possession in any event, given the public law overtones there are with respect to possession proceedings.
- Nonetheless, there is no doubt at all that Ms Bennett is at significant risk of losing her home. Ms Bennett tells me that, not least by reason of the loss of her children, she has struggled with drink and drugs and that may very well explain some of her behaviour and some of her own anti-social behaviour. It appears she is still continuing to struggle with these problems of addiction.
- The question then is what to do given the 13 breaches which are before the court, all of which are so similar in nature that it is not of any merit to differentiate between the individual breaches. I, first, have to remind myself of what are the sentencing powers of the county court. They are well-known and they are very limited by comparison to the Magistrates’ Courts or the crown court.
- I can sentence for a term of imprisonment for up to two years. The imprisonment can be immediate or it could be suspended for a period of time and on conditions. I can fine. That tends to be a fairly unhelpful power in anti-social behaviour cases. I can impose no penalty at all. I could adjourn. What I cannot do is make various orders such as community orders which would perhaps be of greater help in these sorts of cases.
- There is a difference in ethos between the county court and, say, the crown court. The crown court, of course, punishes for breach of the criminal law and it also seeks to dissuade the perpetrator and others from breaching the criminal law. The crown court is, of course, alive to the effect on victims; perhaps the county court more so, because what the county court wishes to achieve is compliance with this order and some peace and tranquillity for all of the neighbours. The county court is not desirous of punishing unless that is the only solution to achieve compliance with its orders.
- I have been referred to the sentencing guidelines for breach of criminal behaviour orders. Sometimes they can be of some assistance. In a case such as this, they really are of very limited assistance. I suppose I might categorise this as a B2 case or thereabouts but I emphasise that, I am afraid, the criminal behaviour order sentencing guidelines are not going to assist me much. We also are aware of the guidance from the Civil Justice Council. I am not aware of a recommendation yet that their guidance should be accepted. Nonetheless, I consider it of considerable use. It is born of research and consideration of civil anti-social behaviour.
- The conclusion I have reached is this. I think that this is a case where Ms Bennett’s behaviour is such that I do need to consider a short term of imprisonment, but suspended. I take carefully into account that Mr Walters has not featured since March of this year. It is essential that Mr Walters does not feature. In so far as Mr Walters has overwhelmed Ms Bennett, it is incumbent upon Ms Bennett to try to secure more help to keep Mr Walters away. Injunction orders are available for her if she applies for them and Legal Aid is available to apply for injunction orders. It is not just Mr Walters, there has been a history of anti-social behaviour on her part as well.
- I cannot give credit for a guilty plea, but I consider that a term of imprisonment for 28 days is appropriate. Only half of that will be served, but it is going to be suspended. It is going to be suspended for a period of one year and it is going to be suspended upon compliance with the injunction order made by District Judge Watson provided that has not expired.
JUDGE RALTON: Is it still live?
MS MAHMOOD: Yes, it’s still live.
JUDGE RALTON: Until?
MS MAHMOOD: Your Honour, until the 17th of December of this year and we would invite the court to grant a further extension of that.
JUDGE RALTON: Yes. Any objection to renewal of the injunction order of District Judge Watson?
DEFENDANT: No, I’ll be gone by then anyway.
- I will then grant an extension as well and so the injunction order will be extended. This gives you control over your life, Ms Bennett. If there are no further breaches, you have nothing to worry about. If breaches are alleged against you and they are proven to the criminal standard, then not only are you at risk of being imprisoned for those new breaches but you are at risk of the suspended sentence being activated, is that clear?
JUDGE RALTON: So you’re not going to prison today.
JUDGE RALTON: And you will not go to prison, so far as the civil law is concerned, without a further order from the court. You know the score, you must comply with the injunction order.
JUDGE RALTON: All right. There will be an expedited transcript of the judgment today, the sentencing remarks.