Careful With Those E-Mails; You Might Be in Contempt of Court
In the Ontario family law decision of Gill v. Chiang handed down just last month, the court was asked to evaluate the appropriateness of the father’s e-mail correspondence to the mother and their two sons, aged 15 and 16.
By way of background: The parents had divorced a few years earlier, but had allowed ongoing parenting disputes to deteriorate into what was termed a “high conflict” situation. In order to try to resolve the contentious issues between them, they had turned to an arbitrator who – after a 5-day hearing – issued an award which contained numerous agreed-to “Parenting Principles” and which covered 11 pages of detailed scheduling during and outside school, and on every conceivable occasion. The award was confirmed, on consent, by court order.
Nonetheless, disharmony between the parents continued, with the children caught in the middle. The mother eventually brought a motion before the court to have the father declared to be in contempt of the court order. In addition to claiming that he deliberately disobeyed the weekend residence schedule established by the arbitrator, and that he had stopped paying child support for tactical reasons, the mother took strong exception to various e-mails that had been sent to her by the father.
In particular, she filed over 400 pages of e-mail correspondence with the court, which contained his denigrating and critical comments, and which put the children in the middle of the parents’ conflict in connection with scheduling, child-related expenses, and extra-curricular activities. More importantly, in some cases the father had forwarded or blind-copied the sons on some the e-mails to the mother. Whenever she had expressed her opinion that this was inappropriate, he launched yet another e-mail exchange to ridicule and ignore her.
On these facts, the court agreed with the mother: it found that several of the father’s e-mails were “entirely offensive”, and that his description of the mother and his negative views of her were insulting and were needlessly shared with the boys. The father had allowed his feelings about the mother and the parenting arrangements to influence his conduct, and caused him to ignore the best interests of the children and the Parenting Principles which were designed to govern both parents’ behaviour. In light of the boys’ ages and their desire to maintain a relationship with both parents, the Parenting Principles were to be viewed as a code of conduct with which both parents were obliged to comply.
After drawing those factual conclusions, the court observed that from the legal sense a finding of contempt against the father is only justified if the court is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that:
1) the order states clearly and unequivocably what is or is not to be done;
2) the father is provided sufficient particulars of the allegedly contemptuous behaviour to know what case he must meet; and
3) the father deliberately and wilfully disobeyed the order.
The court found that all three of these tests were easily met in this case, and adjudged the father to be in contempt. It ordered the parties to re-attend at a later date so that a penalty may be imposed on him.
As this case shows, there is clearly a “slippery slope” in terms of parental conduct that deviates from mutually-agreed parenting principles; heightened tensions, poor judgment, and ill-conceived communications may leave parents liable to being found in contempt.
The full text of the decision in Gill v. Chiang, can be found at http://bit.ly/f2api4