Joanne Young v Josephine Smith – Contempt [2017] NSWSC 1443

In this matter Greg Walsh acted for Joanne Young (Plantiff)

JUDGMENT

1 On 2 August 2016, the Contemnor, Ms Josephine Aapa Smith was found guilty of contempt of Court. The Court, as presently constituted, held that on 2 February 2015 the Contemnor dealt with property located at Wharf B, Level 5, Apartment 14, 56-56A Pirrama Road, Pyrmont (‘the Property”), by encumbering it by means of a mortgage in favour of Westpac Banking Corporation (“Westpac”) in circumstances where the Court had, to the knowledge of the Contemnor, restrained such conduct in relation to that property.

2 Having heard the parties on what, if any, sentence to impose, it falls on the Court to sentence the Contemnor.

3 The orders breached were orders of the Court, as earlier stated, restraining any dealing in the Property. The conduct giving rise to the contempt is described in the Reasons for Judgment, published by the Court and giving rise to the finding of guilt: Young v Smith (No 3) [2016] NSWSC 1051 (“the Judgment on Guilt’).

4 It is unnecessary to recite, in full, the somewhat complicated issues associated with the finding of guilt. It is sufficient, for present purposes, to reiterate that proceedings were commenced by the plaintiff, Mrs Joanne Elizabeth Young, initially against her former husband, Mr Leslie James Young, and, as a consequence of the initial proceedings, freezing orders issued against the husband and his subsequent partner, the Contemnor in these proceedings.

5 In the Judgment on Guilt, the Court set out a history of the proceedings (see [17] of that judgment and following). That history is relevant in understanding the objective seriousness of the matter with which the Court is now concerned and is in the following terms:

[17] The applicant, Ms Young, married Mr Young in 1992 and they separated in 1999. She was Mr Young’s second wife. The Contemnor, Ms Smith, is (or was at all relevant times) Mr Young’s de facto partner. She has been in that position since about 1999.
[18] At the time that Mr Young and Ms Smith commenced their de facto relationship, Mr Young’s assets consisted of 50% shareholding in a number of companies (the identities of which, presently, are irrelevant).
[19] In or about 2001 an agreement was executed which recited the contemplation of Mr Young and the Contemnor as to the purchase of residential property for the purpose of it being their residence, that the residential property purchased by them for their joint use, shall be the property of the Contemnor, regardless of the identity of the persons on the registered title.
[20] The applicant, Mr Young’s second wife, was the manager of a hotel owned by one of the companies of which she and Mr Young were each half owners. In July 2006, Mr Young removed the applicant from the hotel premises and made allegations that she had misappropriated monies belonging to the hotel. Those charges were all dismissed.
[21] The applicant brought proceedings against Mr Young for malicious prosecution and/or damages for related or similar causes of action. There were also proceedings relating to a property settlement claim that had been cross-vested from the Family Court of Australia to this Court.
[22] In May 2007, Mr Young and the Contemnor purported to enter into a contract for the purchase of a property at Pirrama Road in Pyrmont (“the Property”). They purported to be joint tenants. The purchase price was something over $4.5 million. The transaction was completed In or about July 2008 and funded through a loan extended to the company that owned the hotel, with Mr Young and the Contemnor each granting the lender a mortgage and guarantee.
[23] The proceedings for the property settlement and for malicious prosecution were heard by the Court and orders made on liability, with separate questions being referred to an Associate Justice. As a consequence of that referral, Harrison AsJ determined, on the basis of proceedings before her, that Mr Young’s assets were valued at or above $9 million.
[24] On 11 April 2013, the Court ordered that Mr Young pay the applicant $2,663,000 and weekly maintenance. Further, the Court found that Mr Young had deliberately deceived police in relation to the charges based upon allegations made by him and awarded damages for malicious prosecution of $165,000.
[25] On 23 September 2013, the residential premises said to be registered in the name of Mr Young and the Contemnor, and described above, were transferred to the Contemnor. Further, the hotel from which the applicant was excluded was sold in May 2014 and the company that owned it put into liquidation. The Liquidator realised its assets which included a car park adjacent to the hotel.
[26] On 5 June 2014 Bankruptcy Notice 172322 was issued at the instigation of the applicant in relation to the judgment debt. The Bankruptcy Notice could not be served.
[27] On 7 August 2014, the Contemnor, acting under a Power of Attorney on behalf of Mr Young, executed a Memorandum of Transfer between Mr Young and herself in relation to Mr Young’s interest in the Property. The purported consideration for the transfer was $1.8 million, which was never paid.
[28] On 29 August 2014, the applicant made an ex parte application to this Court for freezing orders. The Court made orders restraining Mr Young and the Contemnor from dealing with any of their assets, including the Property. until further order of the Court. That order issued on 29 August 2014. The judge who issued the orders was Bellew J. The terms of that order will be recited later in these reasons.
[29] On 1 September 2014, Mr Young initiated an application under s 55(2) of the Bankruptcy Act 1966 (Cth) in which he stated that his interest in the property was worth 50 per cent of $5.5 million and was sold for $1.8 million. The document, in the relevant column, or entry, indicated that Mr Young had received no money for that share or that transfer. Mr Young also identified the Contemnor as a secured creditor in or to the sum of approximately $4 million. Mr Young was declared bankrupt on 2 September 2014, on his own application. [Footnotes omitted.]

6 On 4 September 2014, the Court issued orders, the effect of which was to continue the orders issued by the Court on 29 August 2014 against both Mr Young and the Contemnor in these proceedings. On 2 February 2015, the Contemnor, in contravention of the said orders, entered into a mortgage over the Property and was advanced $5.8 million by Westpac.

7 The Contemnor breached the orders, issued by the Court on 29 August 2014 and continued by the Court on 4 September 2014, and that breach gives rise to the sentence to be imposed for contempt of Court.

8 On 15 April 2015, the Court (constituted by Sackar J) finalised the substantive proceedings, dealing with the ownership of property, and on 5 May 2015 issued orders giving effect to those reasons. The orders were altered on 6 June 2015 and the ultimate effect of the orders was that, subject to a registered mortgage, the Contemnor held the contentious property subject to a one half share on trust for Mr Young but not so as to interfere with any interest of the plaintiff in these proceedings.

Punishment for contempt

9 The power of the Supreme Court of New South Wales to punish for contempt arises from its status as a superior court of record. Contempt is a common law offence, punishment for which is an inherent power of a superior court of record. It is unnecessary here to deal with punishment in the face of Court to which the foregoing statements do not relate.

10 Pursuant to the powers described in the Supreme Court Rules 1970 (“SCR”), and in particular Pt 55 r 13, the Court may impose a penalty for contempt on an individual, being committal to a correctional centre or fine or both. Further, the Court may issue orders for punishment on terms, including suspension or part suspension and impose conditions for good behaviour and the like.

11 There are two types of contempt: civil and criminal. Criminal contempt is conduct that obstructs the administration of justice. Civil contempt is, essentially, the breach of an order or undertaking. However, where that breach is deliberate, being a deliberate defiance or a contumacious breach, contempt that is otherwise civil is considered to be criminal in nature: Witham v Holloway (1995) 183 CLR 525 at 530; [1995] HCA 3.

12 Further, the Court of Appeal has determined that contumacious, wilful and deliberate disobedience of a Court order may be characterised as both civil and criminal conduct: see Pang v Bydand Holdings Pty Ltd [2011] NSWCA 69, per Beazley JA; and Australian Consolidated Press Ltd v Morgan (1965) 112 CLR 483; [1965] HCA 21; and Witham v Holloway, supra.

13 Even “mere” civil contempt affects the administration of justice. The purpose of imposing punishment for wilful disobedience of a court order is to discipline the offender and to vindicate the authority of the court: Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union v Mudginberri Station Pty Ltd (1986) 161 CLR 98; [1986] HCA 46 at [112].

14 The process of sentencing involves a sentencing judge arriving at and imposing a sentence appropriate to the gravity of the offence that was committed (objective seriousness) and to the circumstances of the offender who committed it (subjective circumstances), taking into account the purposes of sentencing. Those purposes include punishment; protection of society; personal and public deterrence; retribution; and reform: see s 3A of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 (“the Act”) and Veen v The Queen (No 2) (1988) 164 CLR 465 at 476; [1988] HCA 14:
“The purposes overlap and none of them can be considered in Isolation from the others when determining what is an appropriate sentence in a particular case. They are guideposts to the appropriate sentence but sometimes they point in different directions.”

15 The process, often referred to as intuitive synthesis, is one jn which the Court considers each of the factors as part of the objective or subjective circumstances (and in some situations both) to arrive at a result which seeks to achieve each of the purposes best.

16 In dealing with the objective and subjective circumstances of the offence and offender, the Court may have regard to the provisions of s 21A of the Act, although most of those criteria are factors to which a sentencing Court would, even in the absence of s 21A of the Act, have regard. Ultimately, the Court has a wide range of sentences that it may impose for contempt of Court: NCR Australia v Credit Connection [2005] NSWSC 1118.

17 The range of sentences includes imprisonment, periodic detention, home detention, community service orders, good behaviour bonds, dismissal of the charge accompanied by either a good behaviour bond or a condition that the offender participate in an intervention program, deferral of sentence, a suspended sentence, a fine, and the making of a non-association or a place-restriction order. Each of those is a potential punishment on Contemnors. The legislature has conferred on the Court the power to impose such punishment: In some instances, there are restrictions on the imposition of any such sentence.

18 In determining the sentence to be imposed, the Court is to consider the nature of the contempt committed: Commissioner for Fair Trading v Rixon (No 3)
[2014] NSWSC 1279, per Garling J. Those circumstances include: the nature and circumstances of the contempt; the impact or likely impact of the contempt on the administration of justice; the extent of the offender’s culpability for the conduct; the need to deter the offender and others from engaging in contempt; whether a finding of contempt has been previously made; whether contrition or remorse is displayed and an apology proffered; and the financial and personal circumstances of the offender when a fine is being sought: see also Paccar Financial Pty Ltd v Ian Menzies & Colleen Menzies (No 2) [2015] NSWSC 1622.

The nature and circumstances of the contempt

19 The circumstances immediately surrounding the contempt have been described above. So too has the background arising from the relationship between Ms Young, on the one hand, and Mr Young and the Contemnor, Ms Smith, on the other hand.

20 As at the time of the sentencing proceedings Ms Smith and Mr Young lived in the Property, a lavish apartment in Pyrmont, which, subject to the orders of the Court (Sackar J) is presently owned by Ms Smith as joint tenant with the trustee in bankruptcy of Mr Young. It is those premises that is the subject of a mortgage to Westpac, granted by Ms Smith, as a result of which Westpac provided a $5.8 million loan.

21 The monies that constituted the loan were provided to a corporate entity of which Ms Smith is the sole director and shareholder.

22 On the material before the Court the calculated estimate of the market value of the Property is between $4.6 million and $6.9 million (Affidavit Angela Skocic, 19 October 2016). I consider that calculation more reliable than the “as is” value of $4 million (Affidavit Krista Emma MacPherson at [4] and KEM-I thereto).

23 The plaintiff is owed approximately $3 million, pursuant to orders of this Court of 23 April 2013, by Mr Young. The orders followed the malicious prosecution proceedings reference to which is provided above: Young v State of New South Wales & Ors; Young v Young (No 2) [2013] NSWSC 330. Those monies have not been paid. Mr Young transferred 50%, being his share in the Pyrmont premises to Ms Smith and, as earlier stated, rendered himself bankrupt.

24 The money received as a result of the mortgage of the relevant premises was utilised for a business venture by the Contemnor through her company, Smith & Smith Investments Pty Ltd. Westpac appointed receivers and sold the hotel purchase with those funds. Apparently, the sale returned an insufficient amount to satisfy the mortgage and Westpac had not released Ms Smith in respect of the mortgage on the Pyrmont premises.

25 The hotel was sold in November 2015 for approximately $6 million, which while in excess of the original maximum facility with Westpac of $5.8 million, represented a shortfall of approximately $800,000, presumably as a result of the cost of sale and enforcement and interest (Affidavit Krista Emma MacPherson at [11]-[12]).

26 As was made clear in the Judgment on Guilt, the Contemnor was well aware that the Court had restrained her from dealing with the property in question.

27 Ms Smith’s awareness of the conditions imposed upon her by the Court is evidenced by the application made by Ms Smith that the orders of the Court be replaced by an undertaking on her part not to deal with the Property. Notwithstanding that knowledge, and in spite of it, Ms Smith obtained a financial advantage by deliberately dealing with the Property in contravention of the orders of the Court. She did so, at (east in part, for the purpose of obtaining a financial advantage. It seems, although it is unnecessary to determine this question, that part of the rationale for Ms Smith’s conduct also related to malice against Ms Young, either on her own part or reflecting the malice and state of mind of Mr Young.

28 The contempt is a very serious one. It is a deliberate and contumacious breach of orders issued for the protection of a party and, in the process, dealing with property that belonged to the plaintiff in these proceedings.

29 Further, the overwhelming inference is that the entire scheme was designed to thwart the plaintiffs attempts to obtain from Mr Young the damages that the Court had awarded. It involved the circumvention of a number of orders of the Court. It involved the transfer of the Property so as to ensure that Mr Young had no assets in his name to which the Judgment debt could attach and it involved a deliberate breach of orders of the Court for the purpose of obtaining a business or commercial advantage.

30 I consider the contempt a serious one and to be categorised as both civil and criminal contempt. The conduct is well above the mid-range in objective seriousness for a contempt. Further, the semi-public disregard and disobedience of orders of the Court is a significant undermining of the authority of the Court and affects the administration of justice.

Subjective circumstances

31 The Contemnor has relied upon a number of exhibits, some of which have been referred to above. Ms MacPherson exhibited to her Affidavit the valuation on an “as is” value basis of the Property and media coverage relating to Ms Smith’s conduct and/or the Judgment on Guilt, together with other Judgments in the wider justiciable controversy. Part of the material upon which the Contemnor relies is an issue or issues relating to her health.

32 Ms Smith’s health issues are, on the evidence adduced in the proceedings, considerable. I have been provided a report by clinical psychotherapist, Ms Odelia Carmon and a report by Professor Frederick Ehrlich OAM. There are also reports from Dr Jerry Greenfield, endocrinologist, Dr Michael Talbot, Dr Nesran Varol, Dr Julie Epstein, consultant physician, reports on imaging to various doctors and reports from her general practitioner, Dr Dror Schmuelly.

33 The Contemnor refers to the fact that she has no criminal history. Nor has she previously been charged with any criminal offence. The contempt proceedings are the first ever contact with a penalty or punishment proceedings before a court.

34 It is necessary to deal with the medical issues, although, in so doing, the Court will seek not to disclose unnecessarily matters that are and ought to remain confidential. Some disclosure is necessary. In or about May 2010, Ms Smith was diagnosed with a 1.5 cm meningioma which encased the carotid artery causing some deformity and elongation. There was some inferior extension, but otherwise the cerebral MRI showed no abnormalities. The meningioma was removed and by May 2015 there was no evidence of any recurrence and her brain had stable appearance and no recurrence.

35 In 2009 Ms Smith suffered from a neurological disorder and seizures seemingly related to a multisystem failure after a mosquito bite in South Africa in December 2005. A number of treatments were attempted, which were unsuccessful but, ultimately, she was treated with Nutropin which resulted in her being able, once more, to walk and to give up reliance on a wheelchair, as was previously the situation. She will continue to have balance problems and to use a walking stick.

36 A summary of the conditions suffered by Ms Smith is contained in the report of Dr Schmuelly of 6 February 2015, which forms part of Ex 2 in the proceedings.

37 Professor Ehrlich’s report of 28 September 2016 also forms part of Ex 2. He refers to the multisystem breakdown relating to a virus from the mosquito bite and also to the history given to him of three heart attacks, a kidney failure, lung failure and major neurological problems as a consequence of which she spent three years in a wheelchair.

38 Professor Ehrlich referred to the effect of these illnesses on her business ventures which she was required, during that period, to “sell … at a loss” and “her feelings when having to deal with distress sales”. He also referred to a series of family tragedies, with numerous deaths, having to attend funerals and cope with relationship problems.

39 At the time, according to the history given to Professor Ehrlich, she was consuming approximately 2 bottles of wine each day and a half a bottle of single malt whiskey.

40 The family tragedies seem to have affected Ms Smith more as a consequence of her place in the Samoan community and the fact that members of her family of origin were the founding fathers of the Samoan Congregational Church. She also fulfils major familial and cultural duties assigned to her by her family (Ex 3).

41 Professor Ehrlich suggests that Ms Smith was “unaware of the Court order which was issued whilst she was overseas” and that “she was not made aware of it on her return”. With respect to Professor Ehrlich, he may have been given that history but the history is inconsistent with the events in Court and in the precincts of the Court, including applications made by her through counsel which disclose a clear understanding of the nature of the restrictions imposed upon her.

42 Professor Ehrlich suggests that “her capacity for processing information and applying effective judgement must be considered to have been significantly impaired”. The report was not the subject of cross-examination and I accept that opinion.

43 Nevertheless, the opinion is based upon some assumptions of fact, which are not borne out. The Court has already referred to the awareness by Ms Smith of the orders issued and her understanding of the orders that Issued. Further, the breakdown in her relationship with Mr Young, to which Ms Smith referred Professor Ehrlich, either did not occur at the time or was not at all acrimonious. In evidence as Annexure A to the Affidavit of Angela Skocic of 20 October 2016 are photographs of Ms Smith with Mr Young taken and posted on Facebook at a time during which it was said their relationship had “broken down”.

44 The other issue to which reference needs to be made is the report of clinical psychotherapist, Ms Odelia Carmon. I will not detail the history recited by Ms Carmon. Ms Smith did not give evidence. Some of that history would require direct evidence for it to be taken into account as part of the early childhood of Ms Smith, particularly the allegations of abuse from the age of nine until the age of 22 years.

45 I accept that Ms Smith’s actions may result, at least in part, from a life filled with responsibilities to others and unfulfilled personal expectations and her need to become secure, independent and self-sufficient. do so without necessarily accepting the history that may have led to that.

46 I also accept a degree of cultural tension that defines Ms Smith’s self-image and causes problems with self-management. The report from Ms Carmon expresses the view that Ms Smith genuinely regrets her action in breaching her obligations to the Court. Unfortunately, that was not the subject of any evidence from Ms Smith and J have significant doubts as to the degree of Ms Smith’s remorse.

Consideration

47 The Court accepts that there are a number of subjective mitigating factors in determining an appropriate sentence. I accept that the Contemnor has had a significant medical and psycho-social history, involving a brain tumour and a number of other illnesses, some of which were caused by an unfortunate viral infection from and/or in reaction to a mosquito bite in Africa.

48 Ms Smith was 46 years of age at the time of the contempt, namely February 2015. As has been made clear earlier in these reasons, the Contemnor has not before been before a court and is entitled to the leniency of a first offender. accept, also, that there was some impairment to Ms Smith’s capacity for executive decision making on a rational basis around the time of the contempt.

49 I do not accept that the Contemnor and Mr Les Young had severed their relationship at the time of the contempt or very soon thereafter. I do accept that the Contemnor deliberately and contumaciously contravened the order of the Court prohibiting her from dealing with the Property, which she mortgaged in order to obtain a benefit of $5.8 million (or the use of the funds for business purposes). I also accept that the breach of the order was part of a wider plan the effect of which was intended to deprive Ms Young of enforcing other Court orders, cocooning the assets into the name of the Contemnor and away from Mr Young, and thereby seeking to prevent Ms Young from enforcing her judgments.

50 Further, the conduct of transferring the property from Mr Young to the Contemnor (and, in the case of the Contemnor, accepting that transfer) and mortgaging the property, was done without any notice to any person, in circumstances where Ms Smith was at that time before the Court. The transactions were deliberately concealed from the Court and Ms Smith allowed the proceedings to continue on a false premise, known to her and which she hid from others. Part of that process included misleading Westpac as to the position of the apartment and its history.

51 It is clear that the Contemnor was motivated, in part, by financial gain and probably as a matter of malice towards Ms Young. The former has been proved beyond reasonable doubt. The latter is disregarded because it has not been proved to that required standard. The contempt (and the larger financial arrangement of which it formed part) was otherwise performed for the benefit of Mr Young, her then partner.

52 As previously stated, an assessment of the objective seriousness of the offence puts it above the mid-range in seriousness and it is clear that the contempt offence was not, in the least, technical. It was a wilful, deliberate and contumacious contempt being an intentional disobedience involving a conscious defiance of the authority of the Court and a deliberate attempt to subvert the orders imposed upon her.

53 As a consequence Ms Smith’s intentional conduct also involves the knowing defiance of the Court’s order and authority and the sentencing must achieve a purpose that involves both general and specific deterrence.

54 The consequence of the mental and other medical conditions of the Contemnor render the general and specific deterrence less significant than it might otherwise have been and render the Contemnor Jess appropriate as an example in relation to general deterrence. Ms Smith’s behaviour was described as “surreptitious” by the Court (Young v Smith (No 2) [2015] NSWSC 1267 at [36]-[37]. However, some general and specific deterrence is required. The medical conditions of the Contemnor, including her restricted mobility, make prison a more onerous punishment.

55 Further, the fact that the business for which Ms Smith borrowed the money did not succeed is a matter wholly unrelated to the contempt. The money was borrowed for the purpose of making a profit. The mortgage was effected in order to gain security for the borrowed monies.

56 Notwithstanding the comments in the report of Ms Odelia Carmon, there has been no apology or public expression of contrition.

57 Moreover, the publicity occasioned in relation to the conduct of Ms Smith js not an extra curial punishment. It is the natural result of conduct by a person in utter defiance of the orders of a court. In the absence of the rule of law, we would all live in a state of chaos. Courts adjudicate the rights of the members of society as between themselves. It is not for a member of society to snub that adjudication for self-interest.

58 If the published material about the conduct of Ms Smith was defamatory, then Ms Smith would have a cause of action. I do not consider the publicity given to the conduct of Ms Smith or the Judgments of the Court concerning her conduct to be a form of extra curial punishment. Nor, in this case, do consider that it ameliorates the punishment that otherwise ought to be imposed.

59 As a consequence, the Court shall impose a penalty. I reiterate the comments made in relation to financial penalties where the motive is financial gain. Democracy, as we know it, depends upon the rule of law and the obedience of members of the community of the orders of the Court.

60 Moreover, I do not accept the submission, put on behalf of Ms Smith, that no damage or prejudice has been suffered by the plaintiff. The stress associated with litigation of this kind and the years of litigation leading to the orders that ultimately were made by the Court, involve a stress beyond the stress of winning or losing and beyond the stress associated with the requirement to meet legal costs to enforce rights that ought not have needed to be litigated.

61 Notwithstanding the subjective circumstances to which Ms Smith has pleaded in relation to her conduct, I consider, bearing in mind both the objective and subjective circumstances of the offence, that a custodial sentence is warranted. I also consider that the only proper disincentive to other persons seeking to obtain a profit by the deliberate defiance of Court orders is to impose a monetary penalty.

62 The Court makes the following orders:

(1) The Court records a conviction for the offence of contempt committed by Josephine Aapa Smith (“the Contemnor”);
(2) The Court sentences the Contemnor to a term of imprisonment of 6 months, fixed term. The Court suspends execution of the whole of the sentence for a period of 6 months and directs that the Contemnor be released from custody on condition that she enter into a good behaviour bond for the said period of 6 months. The sentence will commence on and from 25 October 2017;
(3) The Court imposes a fine on the Contemnor of $50,000, in addition to the foregoing sentence of imprisonment;
(4) The Contemnor shall pay the plaintiffs costs of and incidental to these proceedings on an indemnity basis;
(5) Any party who seeks a different or special order as to costs may apply within seven (7) days of the date of this Judgment by filing a submission with the Associate to his Honour Justice Rothman. Such submission shall be no more than three (3) pages in length. Any party affected by any such application may reply to said application by a submission of the same length within 7 days of receipt of the application.

**********