Northern Ireland news

Solicitor sentenced to three months for contempt of court

Solicitor Brian Stelfox was sentenced to three months in prison following a High Court ruling
Seamus McKinney

ONE of Northern Ireland’s most experienced solicitors has been sentenced to three months in prison for contempt of court during a divorce case from his former wife.

With offices in Derry and Limavady, Brian Stelfox (64) once owned one of the busiest law practices in Northern Ireland.

In a High Court ruling, Mr Justice John O'Hara QC concluded that in divorce proceedings with his former wife, Claire Stelfox, he lied to the court and withheld documents. The judge concluded that the court had not been told “anything approaching the truth”.

Mr Justice O’Hara said: “The respondent’s (Stelfox) conduct in this case is all the more despicable because he is an experienced practising solicitor. If he is not punished for contempt, who will be?

“Nobody knows or should know better than practising lawyers what the consequences of disregarding court orders are.”

Stelfox and his wife separated in 2013 following a 20-year marriage. In an agreement reached in 2016, the lawyer agreed to pay £1,250 a month in respect of each of their three younger children who are now aged 23, 21 and 19 until they completed third level education. This amounted to maintenance payments of £3,750 per month, decreasing as each completed third level education. The couple have one other child who is now aged 26.

However, in November 2016, Stelfox’s ex-wife brought proceedings against him, alleging he failed to comply with the terms of a court order and did not pay maintenance as he was obliged to do. The court noted that his last payment was in the spring of 2017.

Mrs Stelfox said her former husband had been paying maintenance late and short and failed to pay anything in October 2016. In December that year, Stelfox claimed in an affidavit he had ceased practice as a solicitor because his business had become “unviable”.

Mrs Stelfox subsequently hired a private investigator who found evidence which challenged her former husband’s claims over his employment and income status.

In a written ruling, Mr Justice O’Hara concluded that Stelfox lied to the court. The judge said it was difficult to form a view of Stelfox’s actual income from two firms he had worked for. He also found that Stelfox had “deliberately used” his partner to channel money through her accounts over a period of time.

He concluded that Stelfox defied court orders to which he had agreed at a time when he knew he would be declared bankrupt over a failed property deal in the Republic.

“At no point, however, has the respondent (Stelfox) accepted or apologised or shown any remorse for his actions. Rather he has tried to brazen out the case. In the circumstances I cannot impose a sentence shorter than three months in prison,” Mr Justice O’Hara said.

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