Under the new court rules, brought in by the Civil Justice Reforms on 2 April 2009, all pleadings (including Further and Better Particulars of pleadings), witness statements and expert reports must be verified by a Statement of Truth. This is a statement (usually endorsed on the pleading, witness statement or expert report), verifying that the contents of the document are believed to be true.
The consequences of signing a Statement of Truth, without an honest belief that the contents of the document in question are true, are serious, namely contempt proceedings, which may result in a fine and/or imprisonment.
A recent District Court decision shows that the court takes a tough stance in relation to anyone signing a false Statement of Truth.
The Plaintiff had sued the 1st and 2nd Defendants for the outstanding price of goods (timber) sold and delivered (“the Civil Action”).
Statement of Truth
The Defendants defended the Civil Action on the grounds that the timber was sub-standard and pleaded in the Defence that that they had made numerous complaints to the Plaintiff about the quality of the timber. The Defence contained a Statement of Truth, signed on the 1st and 2nd Defendants' behalf by their solicitor. In response to the Plaintiff's Request for Further and Better Particulars of the Defence, the Defendants filed Further and Better Particulars of the Defence and relied on a letter of complaint, which they said had been sent to the Plaintiff. The Further and Better Particulars of the Defence contained a Statement of Truth, again signed on the 1st and 2nd Defendants' behalf by their solicitor.
The 1st and 3rd Defendants also made witness statements, which referred to the complaint letter. The 1st and 3rd Defendants signed Statements of Truth on their witness statements.
Following the exchange of documents between the parties in the Civil Action, the Plaintiff's solicitors examined the complaint letter and formed the view that it was a false document. They therefore now brought these proceedings against the Defendants for contempt of court, on the basis that they had made false statements in documents verified by Statements of Truth, without an honest belief in their truth.
The court accepted that the applicable legal principles are as follows:-
Applicable Legal Principles
Where a person is prosecuted for contempt for verifying a false Statement of Truth, the Plaintiff must prove beyond a reasonable doubt:
The falsity of each statement in question;
That the statement has, or if persisted in would be likely to have, interfered with the course of justice in some material respects; and
That at the time the statement was made, the maker of it had no honest belief in its truth and knew of its likelihood to interfere with the course of justice.
Given the quasi-criminal nature of contempt proceedings, any doubt must be resolved in the defendant's favour.
It is not necessary to prove specific intent to interfere with the administration of Justice. It is enough if the action complained of is inherently likely to so interfere.
The Court's decision
The court found that the Plaintiff had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the complaint letter was not authentic. The court held that the 1st Defendant had committed contempt of court for causing his solicitor to sign the Statement of Truth on the Further and Better Particulars of the Defence and also for signing the Statement of Truth on his witness statement. It held that the 3rd Defendant had committed contempt of court for signing the Statement of Truth on his witness statement. The court found that the complaint made in relation to false statements in the Defence was not made out because the Defence did not specifically refer to the complaint letter, but only to the Defendants having made complaints to the Plaintiff, which the court could not rule out having happened.
The court held that a case for contempt had not been made out against the 2nd Defendant (who was the wife of the 1st Defendant) because it was possible, on the evidence, that she had put forward the Further and Better Particulars of the Defence on the basis of what her husband had told her. The 2nd Defendant had not made any affirmation or witness statement in the Civil Action, but the court said that if she had done so and stated that she personally knew of the existence of the complaint letter, she would have been found guilty of contempt.
In terms of penalties, the court said that in deciding such it should make reference to cases involving perjury (for which the maximum penalty is 7 years imprisonment), but should also take into account any indemnity costs order which may be made because that would also serve as a kind of punishment. The court said:
“Like the commission of the offence of perjury, the giving of a false statement verified by a statement of truth would underline the whole process of our system of justice and the Court will not tolerate such an act. A clear message has to be sent to all litigants that they must not lie when they put forward their case in the form of pleadings or witness statements.”
The court said that its general approach in perjury cases is that a person found to have committed the offence must receive an immediate custodial sentence, unless there are exceptional circumstances. The starting point, adopted in those cases, the court said, was from five months to two years, depending on the circumstances.
In respect of the 1st Defendant, the court said that this was not a case where he, out of a split second of evil thought had made up something while giving evidence in the witness box. His reliance on the complaint letter was a pre-meditated move to bolster his defence. Further, it was clear that when he signed his witness statement, the 1st Defendant knew that making a false statement would bring serious consequences, but he went ahead and signed it nonetheless.
Taking into account that the 1st Defendant was liable to pay indemnity costs to the Plaintiff in the contempt proceedings, the court adopted 6 months' imprisonment as the starting point. The court gave him a one month discount to take into account his personal circumstances and the fact that he was now remorseful and had abandoned his defence and submitted to judgment in the Civil Action, before knowing the result in these contempt proceedings. The court sentenced the 1st Defendant to five months' imprisonment for each of the two acts of contempt, to run concurrently.
The court said that the position of the 3rd Defendant was even worse than that of the 1st Defendant because he was not personally involved as a party in the Civil Action. He had assisted the 1st Defendant in giving false evidence against the Plaintiff. The court said that this was an aggravating factor, to be taken into account when determining the length of prison sentence. The court adopted a starting point of six months and refused to give any discount. Accordingly, the 3rd Defendant was given an immediate custodial sentence of six months.
This decision shows that the court views the signing of a false Statement of Truth very seriously and will have no hesitation in handing down a custodial sentence for such. This applies not only where a person signs a Statement of Truth themselves, but also where they mislead their solicitors into signing it on their behalf.