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Contempt of court: A strong message to the opportunistic fraudster

Wootton v Surrey County Council
13.7.16
High Court

A personal injury claimant who alleged his wrist injury had been caused by a trip on a raised kerbstone, has been found in contempt of court in respect of his personal injury claim against Surrey County Council and sentenced to a 12 month suspended custodial sentence.  The Council, together with DWF, took a firm stance against the claimant when it was revealed that he had admitted to a friend on Facebook that he had been drinking and had in fact merely slipped in icy conditions. Caroline Sanders reviews the evidence in this case which stands to deter the opportunistic fraudster.

Background

Mr Wootton had pursued a personal injury claim against Surrey County Council, concerning an alleged tripping incident on 3 December 2010 on Napier Road, Staines which resulted in a fracture to his wrist. The defect identified was a raised kerbstone measuring just in excess of 1 inch. The case had proceeded as a standard highways tripping case with no fraud indicators at all, proceeding through to listing stage in unremarkable fashion.

Mr Wootton relied on his own evidence and supporting statements from two friends, Mr and Mrs Harris, who had been accompanying him home on the material evening. Mr Wootton gave a detailed account of his trip and the aftermath with both supporting witnesses confirming they saw him fall forward and that “there was nothing else [other than the raised kerbstone] that could have caused Mr Wootton to fall”. All three were at pains to stress that Mr Wootton had had only minimal alcohol and that he “was not a heavy drinker”. With alcohol consumption having not featured at all in the case before exchange of witness statements, DWF questioned this and undertook social media enquiries for any potential relevant content. It was from there, the civil claim unravelled.

On 5 December 2010 Mr Wootton had made a fatal entry on his Facebook page. In response to a query from an acquaintance as to how he had come to injure his wrist, he commented “alcohol and icy pavements don’t mix!” Further investigations revealed that his report to both a triage nurse and doctor at A&E was that he had “slipped on ice”. Weather reports from the local weather station confirmed the presence of snow and ice on the evening in question.

Service of these documents triggered an immediate discontinuance of the claim and left the local authority to consider whether the evidence gathered was sufficient to meet the criminal burden of proof such that a High Court Judge, who would have to hear a case of this kind, would be sure that there had been a contempt of court by Mr Wootton or indeed all three individuals.

Application to commit

Andrew Prior, Insurance Manager for Surrey County Council was sufficiently robust to proceed with an application to commit on the basis of the evidence gathered. With positive advice from leading Counsel, William Featherby QC, renowned for his work in this field, there was sufficient appetite to proceed against all three potential contemnors with a view to sending a clear message that fraud would not be tolerated by the Council.

In response to the application, Defences and Affidavits were filed by all three Defendants. Mr Wootton denied any wrongdoing at all. He asserted that there had been “black ice” present at the time of the incident and that, whilst this had played a part in exacerbating his fall, it was the kerbstone that was the material cause of his accident. 

Contempt of court

The case came before His Honour Judge Simpkiss, sitting as a High Court Judge in the RCJ. Mr Wootton was individually represented with the Harris’s jointly represented. All three faced heavy cross examination at trial, throughout which they maintained that there had been a raised kerbstone present in the accident location and that this was the material cause of Mr Wootton’s fall. There was a firm denial of any attempt to collude prior to preparation of witness evidence. Mr Wootton repeatedly asserted that he was following advice when he focussed his claim on the trip rather than any slip.

An interesting angle to the case was the waiver of legal privilege in Mr Wootton’s Defence. Repeated references to the advice he had been given by his solicitors during the civil claim was a clear waiver of any privilege and allowed DWF to obtain the entire file held by those solicitors in order that the accuracy of the aversions within the Defence could be properly considered. The content of that file made for an interesting read. The “smoking gun” was the attendance note of a conversation with Mr Wootton following disclosure of the Facebook page and A&E records. Mr Wootton had confirmed that he had mentioned about ice at the outset of his claim but that he had been “told to forget the ice and focus on the trip”. HHJ Simpkiss noted in his Judgment how important this document was, being proof that Mr Wootton was aware he had not been giving a full account of his incident throughout the proceedings. The Judge was clear: whether you yourself give a dishonest account or whether you do so on advice, it is dishonest conduct. The signing of the Particulars of Claim, witness statements, the Defences and Affidavits in response to the committal application were all held to be clear instances of contempt.

Mr Wootton’s explanations of him “simply following advice from his solicitors”, of his Facebook entry being simply “witty banter” and of his report to A&E staff being “in jest after hearing them moaning about the number of ice slip incidents they had dealt with that day” held no weight with the Judge. He dismissed this all, rather comically, as “cutting no ice with him” and went as far as to say the explanations were “implausible” and that he “did not believe any of it for one minute”. Likewise he dismissed entirely the suggestion that the three contemnors had not conspired at least to some extent. He readily accepted in robust terms that all three Defendants were in contempt of court. It should be noted that the Judge was not persuaded of any wrong-doing on the part of Mr Wootton’s solicitors in the civil claim.

Suspended custodial sentence

Mr Wootton was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment suspended for 2 years. It is fair to say the Judge was in serious contemplation of imposing an immediate custodial sentence. He was persuaded against this due only to Mr Wootton having an elderly and unwell mother at home who relied upon him solely as her carer. Both Mr and Mrs Harris were sentenced to 6 months imprisonment suspended for 1 year, reflective of their “merely trying to assist a friend” rather than participating in the proceedings for any personal financial gain. Costs were awarded in Surrey County Council’s favour as against all three Defendants.

The Judge distinguished this case from the cash for crash syndicates and organised fraud rings. He noted in his judgment that this was simply an opportunistic attempt by Mr Wootton on the back of “claim farmers hounding him”. Nevertheless, whilst he evidently had that at the forefront of his mind, it remains that the offence was deemed sufficiently serious that a term of imprisonment was only narrowly avoided.

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Comment

This was a fantastic result for Surrey County Council and has attracted interest from the local media with coverage sending precisely the message hoped for: fraud of any kind, whether it be participation in organised and sophisticated operations or the more opportunistic try on, will not be tolerated and there will be no hesitation in pursuing individuals in cases of this kind. The procedure is strict and deviation from it can prove fatal in contempt cases. Where an individual’s liberty is at stake, procedural failings will not be taken lightly. However, where the evidence you have is sufficiently persuasive, a committal application should be readily considered. The more of these successful cases we see, the more chance we all stand to deter the opportunistic fraudster.

DWF acted on behalf of Surrey County Council

For further information, please contact Caroline Sanders, Senior Associate, on +44 20 7645 9615.

By Caroline Sanders

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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