Court of Appeal Reduces Manifestly Excessive Sentence in Coates v Turner Contempt Case

Citation: [2023] EWCA Civ 1487
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Mark Gary Coates v Janice Elizabeth Turner & Anor [2023] EWCA Civ 1487, the Court of Appeal was faced with the task of reviewing a committal order imposed by the County Court at Hastings. The appeal raised pertinent questions regarding the sentencing for contempt of court, the aggregation of sentences for multiple breaches of a court order, as well as the application of legal representation and procedural fairness in contempt proceedings.

Key Facts

Mark Gary Coates was found in contempt of court by Her Honour Judge Venn for seven breaches of an order made on 20 September 2022, arising from a civil claim about a boundary dispute with his neighbors, the Turners. The orders included the removal of structures and certain behaviors under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Coates, representing himself, was sentenced to 252 days of imprisonment after a series of unsuccessful appeals regarding the original order and subsequent breaches. Coates appealed on the grounds that the sentence was manifestly excessive, improper account of concurrent versus consecutive sentences, consideration for suspension of the sentence, reliance on witness statements despite his election not to testify, and misinterpretation of a statement he made at a permission hearing.

The appeal brought to light several legal principles. Firstly, the court’s admonition regarding the right of a respondent in contempt proceedings to remain silent, pursuant to CPR r.81.7(3) and r.81.4(2)(n), and their discretion to deploy or withhold their own evidence, as iterated in Comet Products v Hawkex Plastics and In re B (Contempt of Court: Affidavit Evidence).

Secondly, it touched on the standard of sentencing for contempt of court, as outlined in Lovett v Wigan Borough Council [2022] EWCA Civ 1631, guiding principles of which stress that custody should be reserved for serious or persistent breaches, and consider the culprit’s conduct’s overall harm and culpability. The appeal deliberated on whether Mr. Coates’s conduct reached the threshold of high culpability and serious harm warranted by the sentencing.

Thirdly, the appeal highlighted the importance of the totality principle in sentencing. The Court of Appeal scrutinized whether the cumulative sentence from consecutive terms was disproportionate, referring to the judge’s discretion under Lovett to consider a penalty for each breach and determine whether terms should run concurrently or consecutively.

Outcomes

The Court allowed the appeal on specific grounds while dismissing others.

  1. The Court agreed that the sentencing was manifestly excessive and reduced Mr. Coates’s sentence to the point of immediate release, given he had served a duration equivalent to about 3 months, which was considered proportionate.
  2. Ground 5, which contested the interpretation of Mr. Coates’s comment at a previous hearing as a breach of the order, was upheld on the basis that the judge’s interpretation was not rationally supportable.
  3. The appeal was dismissed on the lawfulness of passing an immediate custodial sentence and on the reliance on Mr. Coates’s witness statements, as the judge did not place significant reliance on them for her decision.
  4. Questions around the necessity to explain whether sentences were consecutive and the application of a proportionality cross-check were accepted, such that when the starting points are too high, addition through consecutive sentencing can result in excessiveness.

Conclusion

The appeal in Mark Gary Coates v Janice Elizabeth Turner & Anor provides insight into the cautious approach the Court of Appeal must adopt in reviewing committal orders, ensuring that breaching a court order results in proportionate punishment. The Court underscored the principles of future compliance, punishment, and rehabilitation as the primary objectives of such sentences, emphasizing that even though contempt of court should not be taken lightly, the sentencing must remain just and proportionate to the breach’s severity and the breacher’s circumstances.

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