Thursday, 10 May 2012

You are in contempt!!

You are in contempt!!


We often hear about judges jailing people for being ‘in contempt of court’. But what does it mean? 

A finding of contempt declares that someone has either disobeyed a court order or been otherwise disrespectful of the authority of a court.  The sanction is a fine by the court or in more flagrant disobedience, imprisonment.
Disobedience of a court order is the more clear cut of the two types.  Contempt in that sense comes about often in the context of injunctions, for instance domestic violence injunctions, which are ignored,  often with very serious consequences. In the context of serious domestic violence, injunctions have powers of automatic arrest by the police for breach,  attached to them when first made. Otherwise, an application has to be made for a ‘penal notice’ first and the order has to be served again, which makes enforcement more cumbersome but ultimately has the same effect.  
Injunctions can cover many other things. A few years back a woman, otherwise law –abiding, was jailed for failing to obey a final court order to cut her hedge. The whole basis of contempt is that justice will fall into disarray and will be worthless  if court orders are not followed and courts respected,  so it makes no difference how big or small a thing the contemptuous party was ordered to do.
 It is also contempt not to attend court after service of a witness order to do so.

In the wider sense of disrespect to a judge,  this can take many forms. In my criminal law days, I had a case when a young tearaway was finally imprisoned and his father uttered a threat to ‘get’  the presiding magistrate. That was clear contempt.  Many examples involve disruption of court process in various ways, ranging from such threats to speaking ‘out of turn’ or even yawning (although in such milder cases it is likely the judge will give a strong and probably repeated warning before finding the perpetrator in contempt) .  Others involve the press. It is a contempt of court to publish material which will prejudice a fair trial. This kind of contempt is defined by statute.
Contempt can even enter the political arena.  The ex-Northern Ireland Minister, Peter Hain, is currently facing a prosecution by the NI Attorney- General for writing in his autobiography that Lord Justice Girvan was ‘off his rocker’ in connection with his questioning of decisions by civil servants in an old case when he was minister.  Such a prosecution many think goes too far.  It is a opinion expressed in an historical memoir: even if no doubt it helps to sell the book too, so too will the prosecution.  This prosecution is actually for ‘scandalising’ the judge.  Another case of that was in 1900 when the editor of the Birmingham Angus was convicted of describing Justice Darling as ‘an impudent little man in horsehair’. Ouch.