Between abduction and contempt of court: children left without parents

A NIGERIAN father of three, serving time in a UK jail, says the English judges who heard his case are “racist” and “biased”, and that his imprisonment amounts to slavery. Levi Egeneonu is in prison for contempt of court, after he refused to return his three sons to the UK, where their mother – who has not seen her children since 2013 – is desperate about their fate. The man also claims that he cannot obey the orders of the UK courts since they conflict with the orders of the Nigerian courts.

A NIGERIAN father of three sons, Levi Egeneonu, claims his imprisonment in the UK for contempt of court is unjust because he is caught between conflicting judgments in the UK and in Nigeria and cannot obey both. Egeneonu, also known as Bernard Nkem, has been before UK judges at least a dozen times over his 2013 absconding with the children while the family was on holiday in Nigeria. His wife, Ijeoma Egeneonu, has not seen her children since then.

Despite repeated orders that he return the children, he has refused to do so. He is currently serving a prison term of 12 months for contempt but his wife brought a case for a further period of imprisonment because of ongoing refusal to obey court orders in relation to the children and their return, as well as other offences. He was sentenced to an additional 18 months on each of six further counts related to contempt of court, to be served concurrently.

Egeneonu appealed, appearing in person in court, and the court of appeal has now delivered its decision, dismissing his challenge to the additional sentence. The UK court said that his claim, ongoing since 2013, that the English court should not have been involved in the dispute was “without foundation”. The children have dual nationality, and the English courts “clearly possessed jurisdiction from the outset.”

As to his complaint that he was being repeatedly punished for the same contempt, “That relies upon the argument that the abduction (which is anyhow denied by him) happened once, and can only be punished once. That argument is unsound.”

The children were wards of court “and the High Court is empowered to make whatever orders it responsibly considers to be in their best interests.” Where an order designed to secure the return of the children has been properly made, “the jeopardy in which a respondent to a further committal application finds himself is no more than the direct result of his deliberate decision to disobey the court’s orders.”

“The fact that its orders have not been obeyed cannot deprive it of the power to make further orders.”

The court said that a custodial sentence was always a last resort and a sentence of the length passed on Egeneonu was reserved for the most serious cases. “This is such a case. It involves the calculated separation of three children from their mother and a contemptuous disregard for court orders. Those who abduct children in this way must expect lengthy sentences if they are found to be in contempt of court. As it is, these children are currently without either of their parents. That is a tragedy, but it is one brought about by Mr Egeneonu and the solution to it lies, as it has always done, in his hands.”

Evidence before court included transcripts of a number of calls he made from prison. “Typically, in one call he was recorded as stating, ‘Let it be known that I do not want these children to come over here and I do not want these people to know their whereabouts.’” Egeneonu was also found to have “caused” one of the children to write to the court “with the intention of misleading the court about the children’s wishes and feelings” as well as sending a false witness statement to the court and making “false written statements about the whereabouts of the children” and his ability to ensure their return to the UK. In response to the evidence of his behaviour in prison, including these phone calls, the court had previously found he was “controlling the situation from prison”, and that while he had the power to bring the children back he did not do so because he did not want them to return.

As to his claim that there was a Nigerian court order by which he was bound, the appeal judges said this was a claim he had made before. For example, he had quoted a letter “from a Nigerian lawyer in January 2018, that contained a reference to proceedings in Nigeria during 2016” and to an order “In favour of Mr Egeneonu and the children.”

“None of the many judges who have heard Mr Egeneonu has been persuaded that such an order could provide a genuine excuse for his disobedience of the orders of the High Court”.

During the appeal, argued in person by Egeneonu, he claimed that two of the judges who had heard previous elements of the case “both generally and in ignoring a Nigerian court order, showed racist bias”. He added that the order committing him to prison was wrong and unjust. The case, he said, was based on “fraud, violation of international justice and slavery.” The children’s mother had fraudulently claimed the children were abducted “in order to get UK benefits,” he said, adding, “The English court has no jurisdiction over Nigerian children” and that his imprisonment “amounts to slavery”.

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Read the full judgment discussed in this article here: Egeneonu v Egeneonu [2018] EWCA Civ 1714 (18 July 2018)