What is contempt of court? You might have heard this phrase before but what does it really mean? The local or Magistrates court are often filled with delicate tension during trials and hearings because of what’s at stake: the life, liberty, and property of the parties involved.
That is why such tension can lead to unpleasant and unexpected behaviours from those involved. Thus, the Court has the power to declare a person “in contempt” to regulate or prevent such behaviours from escalating into a bigger and much worse problem.
What Is Contempt of Court?
Contempt of court in Australia is an act that undermines the authority, dignity, or impartiality of the courts. It essentially means disrespecting the court system in a way that interferes with its ability to function effectively.
In New South Wales, civil contempt is generally regarded as contempt by breach of an order or undertaking. It remains civil unless it involves “contumacious disregard of orders.” On the other hand, criminal contempt is any behaviour that intentionally interferes with or shows disrespect towards the administration of justice.
These acts may include:
- interrupting proceedings,
- misbehaving before the court,
- insulting a person constituting the court,
- refusing to give evidence, or
- failing to comply with a lawful direction of the court.
Other acts such as the following may also constitute contempt of court:
- abusing and swearing at a magistrate
- filming witnesses with a view to intimidation
- speaking and answering evasively or refusing to answer questions
- refusing to take the oath or give evidence
- refusing to leave the court when directed
- disobeying court orders including subpoena
Summary Procedure in Contempt Cases
The court may impose a summary charge of contempt on the contemnor. However, the law provides that this charge is the last resort because the Court has to consider all the other alternative options, including:
- a warning, reprimand, or exclusion from court
- an opportunity for the alleged contemnor to seek legal advice
- a “cooling off” period followed by an opportunity for apology
- The court must determine if the conduct breached the Court Security Act 2005, which would then lead to prosecution.
- If the conduct involves a legal practitioner, one can file a complaint under the Legal Profession Act 2004.
- in civil matters, where the conduct involves a legal practitioner, whether an order under s 99 Civil Procedure Act 2005‘ could be utilise
- “The court should decide if it needs to refer the matter to the Supreme Court under s 24(4) Local Court Act 2007. If necessary, it will send the reference to the prothonotary.
- The court should decide if it needs to report disrespectful behaviour to the Attorney General under s 24A(7) Local Court Act 2007.
Nevertheless, if the offence is so grave and serious, a summary charge may proceed upon the Court. Thus, if none of the mentioned options apply, the magistrate will orally charge the person who committed contempt.
Here is a sample order:
[Name], you are hereby charged with contempt of court in that on [date] in the [court] at [place] in proceedings before me between [names of parties] [set out conduct — [for example, when the witness AB was passing near you on the way to the witness box for the purpose of giving evidence, you loudly said words to the effect “you’re gone”] and that, as a result, you conducted yourself in a manner that had a real tendency to interfere with the administration of justice.
What Is Contempt of Court: NSW Legislation
To deepen your understanding of what is contempt of court, here is the governing NSW legislation that explains the concept.
The District Court Act 1973 establishes the guidelines regarding contempt of court. Section 199 defines a ‘contemnor’ as someone who is guilty or alleged to be guilty of contempt of court committed in the face of the Court or in the hearing of the Court.
If the Court determines a person to be in contempt, it may:
- Through an oral order, direct the officers to bring the contemnor before it.
- issue a warrant for the arrest of the contemnor,
- Orally inform the contemnor of the contempt charges against him or her.
- require the contemnor to make his or her defence to the charge,
- after hearing the contemnor, determine the matter of the charge, and
- make an order for the punishment or discharge of the contemnor.
Moreover, the Court may order to keep the contemnor in custody and direct his or her release upon disposition of the charge. Also, the Court may impose the following penalties:
- Penalty units: 20
- Imprisonment: not exceeding 28 days.
Finally, the Court may make an order for punishment on terms, including a suspension of punishment. This is in case the contemnor gives security in such manner and in such sum as the Court may approve for good behaviour and performs the terms of the security.
Section 24 of the Local Court Act 2007 also states that the Court has, if it is alleged, or appears to the Court on its own view, that a person is guilty of contempt of court committed in the face of the Court or in the hearing of the Court, the same powers as the District Court has in those circumstances.
These courts may refer these cases to the Supreme Court for determination and it shall dispose of the case as it deems appropriate.
What Is Contempt of Court: Legal Implications and the Maximum Penalty
What is contempt of court and what are the legal implications? If the Court charges you with contempt of court, you must face the legal implications it carries. Here’s a breakdown of the potential consequences:
- Criminal Penalties. For blatant or intentional acts of contempt, the court can impose fines of up to 20 penalty units (AUD2,200) or imprisonment for up to 28 days. In extreme cases, both penalties may be applied.
- Civil Remedies. If someone disobeys a court order, they may be found in civil contempt and face penalties like fines, imprisonment until compliance, or seizure of property.
- Reputational Damage. Being found in contempt can damage the person’s reputation and public image, potentially impacting their professional or personal life.
- Chilling Effect on Free Speech. In some cases, the fear of contempt charges can have a chilling effect on free speech and public scrutiny of the courts. This can hinder open discussions and criticism of legal processes.
Remember, convictions can only be made when proof beyond a reasonable doubt is achieved. Hence, it’s important to seek legal representation during civil proceedings about contempt of court matters.
Seek Legal Advice About Contempt of Court
Contempt of court can be serious and those accused have the right to legal representation and a fair trial during court proceedings. If you have concerns about potential contemptuous behavior, talk to one of our competent lawyers at JB Solicitors who can explain to you what is contempt of court.
Contact us today if you need help with contempt proceedings or any other legal matter.