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Disobeying court orders is ultimately punishable by imprisonment – but only as a last resort. In the context of a family case, the Court of Appeal has ruled that a woman in her 70s, who honestly believed that she was doing her best for a vulnerable man with dementia, should not have spent seven weeks behind bars.
The woman held a power of attorney in respect of the man, who was in his 80s and lacked capacity to make decisions for himself. She had moved him away from Devon, where he had lived for 50 years and where he had a wide circle of friends. Shortly after a social worker recommended his return to the county, she removed him to the country of his birth, Portugal, where he had since resided in a care home.
She had repeatedly refused to comply with orders requiring her to sign documents authorising his discharge from the Portuguese care home and to arrange his return to Devon. After she failed to comply with the terms of a suspended committal order, a warrant for her arrest was issued and she was held in custody for nearly seven weeks until the Court directed her release. She was only freed after a barrister took up her case, free of charge, and put forward arguments on her behalf.
Giving its reasons for releasing her, and praising the barrister who came to her aid, the Court expressed concern that an elderly lady should have found herself in prison despite being of impeccable character. There was no doubt that she had acted on the basis of her deeply held and sincere beliefs as to where the man's best interests lay. In finding that her incarceration was premature and that she had been failed by the system, the Court also granted her permission to appeal against a welfare determination that the man should be returned to Devon.