Northern Ireland

Former solicitor must pay £110,000 maintenance debt within a week

Solicitor Brian Stelfox must pay £110,000
Solicitor Brian Stelfox must pay £110,000

A former solicitor previously jailed for contempt of court in a divorce case must pay a £110,000 maintenance debt within a week, senior judges have ordered.

Brian Stelfox was warned that failure to clear the outstanding arrears by the deadline could lead to him being returned to prison.

Stelfox, who once ran a Derry-based legal practice, has already served a three-month term imposed by a High Court judge who found he had withheld documents and breached maintenance orders.

He mounted an appeal after Mr Justice O’Hara sentenced him to a further six months for continued contempt.

Committal proceedings were brought by his ex-wife for alleged breaches of a financial settlement reached in 2016 when they divorced after being married for more than 20 years. 

Clair Stelfox claimed he has not paid any maintenance for their children since 2017.

The former solicitor argued that bankruptcy and an increasingly unviable business meant he was no longer in a position to pay.

He sought to have the maintenance reduced to zero and the remission of all outstanding arrears.

But in 2021, Mr Justice O’Hara held that Stelfox had access to funds which he had attempted to hide.

Describing his conduct as “despicable”, the judge sentenced him to three months in prison for contempt of court.

In 2022, Stelfox applied again to have the maintenance order reduced.

He contended that the jail term had ended any chance of rebuilding his career and effectively left him with no income.

However, Mr Justice O’Hara found Stelfox in contempt again and imposed a further six-month term.

He stated that the solicitor seemingly “sees himself above the law, free to disregard the inconvenience of court orders”.

In a challenge to his order, the Court of Appeal heard that Stelfox can no longer work because his reputation is in “tatters”.

His ex-wife stressed that her objective was not to see him put behind bars.

“This was only ever about him maintaining his children, who still do require ongoing financial support,” she told the court.

“This is not about Brian’s ability to pay, this is about Brian choosing not to pay.”

Despite identifying some procedural flaws in the High Court proceedings, Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan ruled that it did not change Stelfox’s duty to comply with his financial obligations.

“It’s very much a pyrrhic success on this appeal which is not going to change the landscape very substantially,” she pointed out.

An agreement was reached that an arrears of just over £110,000 is owed.

Dame Siobhan directed that Stelfox is to be issued with an order to pay the outstanding sum within seven days, with a penal notice attached. 

She added: “If the money is not paid… the matter of contempt will come back to us.”