Getting money out of serial maintenance defaulters is a notoriously difficult exercise, but even the most recalcitrant and cunning dodger will baulk at the prospect of being locked up for contempt of court.
And our courts, mindful of their position as “upper guardian” to all children, have shown again and again that they will have no hesitation in acting firmly against the sort of bad-faith defaulters we are talking about.
What must you prove?
You must prove not only a deliberate breach of the court order, but also that the breach was “wilful” and in bad faith. Although normally in non-criminal matters the standard of proof required is “on a balance of probabilities”, in contempt proceedings you have to prove bad faith on the much higher standard required for criminal convictions i.e. “beyond reasonable doubt”.
As the Court in the second case below put it: “If, on a conspectus of all the evidence, it is a reasonable possibility that the husband’s non-compliance was not wilful and mala fide, he cannot be subjected to criminal sanctions for contempt.”
Of course, genuine inability to pay, which is no doubt more common now than it was before the COVID-19 lockdown, is a different matter altogether. We are talking here about dodgers who are able to pay but refuse to do so. A defaulter who simply cannot pay should apply for a variation of the court order. If the order stands, payment must be made – end of story.
Two recent High Court decisions illustrate the issue.
First case: A “brazen” defaulter’s choice – pay or go to jail
A father had been ordered, per a 2017 divorce settlement agreement, to pay R15,000 p.m. maintenance for his two minor children. He stopped paying in early 2018 and by the time this matter reached court he had run up arrears of R537,499.
In response to the mother’s application to have him jailed for contempt of court, the father pleaded poverty – a standard ploy.
The Court was having none of that, and the mother had no difficulty in proving her case for contempt.
Pointing out that the father was earning R147,000 p.m. (R83,000 net plus R10,000 to a provident fund), that he was paying R11,000 p.m. for a BMW and R14,000 p.m. on online gambling and trading, and commenting that “father’s position is extraordinarily brazen” the Court declared him to be in contempt of court.
To avoid 30 days behind bars he must pay off the arrears in instalments in addition to keeping up his monthly maintenance payments. He also has to pay all legal costs on the punitive “attorney and client” scale.
Second case: Sorry, dogs, it’s not quite the same for you
Although our courts naturally take a dim view of anyone disregarding any form of court order, jail time is not the only possible sanction. Thus, in another recent High Court case a fine (R20,000 conditionally suspended for three years) was imposed rather than a prison sentence.
An acrimonious divorce action found a husband ordered to pay his wife on an interim basis for a variety of household expenses, including (the aspect that has captured most attention in the media) expenses relating to the couple’s two dogs for dog food, a dog walker, and veterinary, medical, and pharmaceutical expenses.
The husband claimed a genuine misunderstanding of his obligations under the court order (not least regarding his various obligations vis-à-vis the dogs), a defence accepted by the Court in some regards but not in others.
He also claimed inability to pay as a result of the lockdown’s effect on his company and his resultant reduction in salary – a defence rejected by the Court on the basis that he had “failed to put up evidence which should have been available to him to support a claim of unaffordability”. Similarly, his counter-application to reduce the amount of cash maintenance payable failed.
As to why the defaulter in this case avoided a prison sentence (as requested by his wife) the Court concluded that “imprisonment is not called for. I am dealing with a first infraction, which is considerably narrower than what the wife alleged.” One wonders whether another factor in that outcome might have been the fact that no children were involved, just a wife seemingly “unattractively intent on extracting more than her ‘pound of flesh’” and two pampered pooches. Certainly, the wife’s failures led the Court to award the wife only 75% of her costs, and on the ordinary cost scale rather than on a punitive scale.