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Where documents are provided to the court by a third party, for example by a spouse’s employer, as part of family law proceedings, a party cannot release or distribute the information contained in those documents without the court’s permission. In a recent case the husband found this out the hard way.
Approximately 4 weeks after final orders for property settlement were made in the court following an agreement being reached between the wife and husband, the husband sent a letter to the wife’s employer.
The letter outlined the husband’s allegation that the wife “misappropriated funds” from her employer. In support of the husband’s allegations he referred to specific details and documents contained in the documents produced to the court under a subpoena issued to the wife’s employer. The husband also included in the letter copies of the wife’s bank statements, copies of cheques and copies of purchase orders, as well as a copy of the subpoena addressed to the wife’s employer.
The husband claimed that he needed to send the letter and copies of documents to the wife’s employer to “help him” clear his name from all “legal ramifications”, which he believed could be made against him by the wife’s employer.
The court was of the view that the husband intended to use the documents for the purpose of harming the wife, in terms of her employment or to effect some other adjustment in terms of his own tax affairs.
The court noted that as the husband provided a copy of the relevant subpoena as an attachment to the letter, he was well aware of the obligations on him. The subpoena itself outlined very clearly that a person must not disclose the contents of or give a copy of a document produced in response to a subpoena, to any other person without the court’s permission.
As such, the court was satisfied that the husband was well aware of his obligation not to use the documents provided to the court for any purpose other than the court proceedings, and that he was aware that there was an obligation on him not to disclose the contents of the documents, nor give a copy of them to another person without the court’s permission.
The court found the husband guilty of contempt of court and that his conduct amounted to a “flagrant challenge to the authority of the court”.
The court also noted that a third party (who is the subject of a subpoena) is entitled to have a degree of confidence that the documents provided by them to the court will not be used for purposes other than the proceedings and will not be given to other persons without the court’s permission.
The penalty for the husband was to be determined at another hearing but could include a prison term or a fine or both.
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