What Happens If You Lie in Family Court?

17 Jan 2024 | Lisa Pepper

Table of Contents

Honesty is the backbone of the English court system. 

Witnesses in court take an oath that they will tell the truth – by either affirming or swearing on the bible or other religious book. The court documents you sign as part of your case include a statement that its contents are true. 

Lawyers have a professional duty to be honest and not knowingly mislead the court. 

The court relies on people to tell the truth so that a fair and just decision can be made. 

So what happens if you lie in court? 

One person’s word against the other

Unlike in criminal cases where there is police evidence to support the prosecution, family disputes often come down to one person’s word against the other. 

In child custody disputes, for example, one parent’s version of events may be drastically different from the other’s. Most domestic violence incidents happen behind closed doors, so there may be no witness evidence to corroborate the victim’s story.  In finance cases, a spouse may be in the dark about the true extent of their spouse’s wealth, which makes it easier for their spouse to give misleading information on their Form E

Lies, big and small, are told more often than we’d like to think. You won’t be surprised to learn that you can’t get away with it.

In 2022, a man was sent down for seven-and-a-half months after he dishonestly edited emails from estate agents to lower the value of the family home during divorce negotiations. The offence took place on the Isle of Man, which has a separate legal system. But it shows what could happen if you deliberately mislead the court. 

What is perjury?

Before we go any further, let’s explain what perjury is. You’ve probably heard the term, and understand that it has something to do with misleading the court. But you may be shocked at how serious an offence it is.

The offence of perjury is found in the Perjury Act 1911. The Act explains that perjury is when someone who has lawfully sworn as a witness or interpreter in a judicial proceeding wilfully makes a statement they know to be false or does not believe to be true. 

Perjury is a very serious crime against the integrity of the justice system. The punishment includes fines, community service and up to seven years of prison time. A conviction can interfere with someone’s ability to obtain employment or security clearance, as they will be convicted of a crime of dishonesty. 

Is lying in a family case perjury?

Lying in a family case can amount to perjury, but it’s complicated. For someone to be convicted of perjury, they have to know that what they’re saying is a lie. That’s often not the case in family proceedings where emotions run extremely high. Often, a party will genuinely believe that a statement is true, even if no one else would interpret what happened the same way. 

The other part of perjury is that the lie must be made under oath. Anyone giving false evidence at a court hearing will meet this requirement, and the definition also includes written statements sworn to be true, like an affidavit. 

However, a lot of the information you share in family law proceedings is not submitted under oath. Technically, false information given in these documents would not count as perjury – although it could amount to a lesser offence like making a false declaration of truth on a questionnaire.

With all that said, judges are getting creative in how they deal with dishonesty in court proceedings.  The recent case of Baker v Baker is a good example of this. Here, the wife applied for maintenance pending suit as part of a divorce and both parties were required to make financial disclosures. 

The judge, Mr Justice Mostyn, described the husband’s disclosures as “lamentable” with “incorrect representations being followed hard on the heels by false statements.” He ordered the husband to provide replies to his wife’s questionnaire as a sworn statement – an oath. 

This meant that lying on the document could lead to charges of perjury which has a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment, in contrast to making a false declaration of truth on a questionnaire which carries a maximum of two year’s jail time for contempt of court. 

What are the consequences of lying in family court? 

If you were thinking  about lying to the court, don’t. It’s incredibly risky behaviour that can have some or all of the following consequences: 

  • The judge may draw a negative conclusion from your behaviour and that might influence their decision.   For example, in Children Act proceedings, you might end up with less time with your children than you otherwise would have..
  • If a judge thinks you’re hiding assets, they can award your spouse more of what the Judge knows is there, taking a broad-brush approach about what other assets you have at your disposal.   
  • You might get a costs order against you, particularly where the case has taken longer and additional costs have been incurred because of the lie. 
  • You may be held in contempt of Court. This is not a criminal offence, but it can result in fines, community orders or up to two years’ imprisonment.
  • Lastly, there is the possibility of prosecution for perjury and its maximum 7-year prison sentence. Following Baker v Baker, we might see more judges engage the full force of perjury laws to crack down on lies. 

Bottom line? Honesty is always the best policy. Lying to the court can have disastrous consequences for your case and your future. It’s always better to be honest, even if it means admitting something you’re not proud of. Your solicitor will be able to advise you on the best course of action and will work with you to present your case in the most honest and effective way possible. 

So remember: tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It’s not just a saying, it’s the law.  

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