Did you know that the Family Law Courts can imprison you?

by Natasha Orr, Senior Associate

Most people would associate imprisonment as a sentence ordered by a criminal court for a serious crime but it’s important to note that the Family Law Courts also have the power to order imprisonment.

In the recent property settlement case of Okien & Nhan, the Court Ordered that the husband be imprisoned for contempt of court and that a warrant issue for his arrest.

The husband in this case had been involved in a “very suspicious transaction” whereby he had transferred the sum of $265,000 to a “Ms C” in the US to repay a debt from 20 years ago which had suddenly been called up. The payment amounted to “virtually all of the assets … the parties then had in liquid form”. The Court ordered that the money be returned by Ms C but she had not done so.

The wife sought an urgent injunction against the husband’s disposal of proceeds of sale of a car he was selling and $100,000 he was to receive from an investment property. The Court granted the injunction in light of the earlier transaction and the matter was then adjourned.

When the matter came back before the Court, the husband was no longer represented and had absconded overseas. The wife sought a costs order against the husband and a watch list order which meant that, once the husband returned to Australia, he would be prevented from leaving again by the Australia Federal Police.

The wife sought an Order that the husband be arrested upon returning to Australia but the Court declined to do so at that point.

The matter proceeded to a hearing which the husband did not attend. At the hearing the Court Ordered that the husband pay to the wife the sum of $343,000 by way of property settlement plus her costs. The Court also ordered the husband’s arrest and ordered that he be sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.

An important point to take away form this case is the fact that a watch list order (preventing the husband from exiting Australia) could have been sought earlier, after the suspicious payment to Mrs C. This would then have avoided the husband being able to leave the country prior to the final hearing. If the husband had continued to dispose of assets (in breach of the injunction), the Court would then have had the power to imprison him.

If you have a complex property settlement case, don’t get caught out. Give Natasha Orr, Senior Associate at Fedorov Lawyers a call and ensure that you have the benefit of strategic legal advice.

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