Criminal contempt consists of words or actions which obstruct or tend to obstruct the administration of justice. Civil contempt is disobedience to judgments, orders and court processes, which causes private loss or injury. A party in contempt may be restricted from being heard or from taking the steps in proceedings until he has purged his contempt.
The superior courts have inherent jurisdiction to sanction criminal contempt. They may do so by the summary process of attachment and committal, where they consider a criminal charge / indictment will not meet the requirements of justice. The power to attach and commit must be exercised with caution due to the potential for misuse. There is no appeal from criminal contempt. Privilege is not generally available in proceeding on foot of contempt.
Contempt in Face of Court
It is contempt in the face of a court to insult a judge or obstruct or disturb the court while sitting. Insults to other parties and aggressive advocacy do not constitute contempt, unless they are calculated to lead to a breach of the peace. A mere act of discourtesy by itself does not constitute contempt.
It is contempt of court to refuse a lawful question put by the judge or the party’s legal representatives. The courts have powers to try contempt of court summarily. This is necessary to protect the court’s authority. The general right to a trial by jury for a non-minor offence does not apply to contempt tried summarily.
The courts have found that this is a necessary exception, which is necessary to give effect to the inherent powers of court. It was found to be implicit in the constitutional the guarantee of the courts’ independence.
It is contempt for a witness to refuse to be sworn or affirm, or to refuse to answer a question lawfully put. It is contempt deliberately to prevaricate in response.
If the witness declines to answer on the basis of privileging against self-incrimination, the court must be satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for him to apprehend such possibility or risk.
Contempt may be committed out of court by speech or writing which scandalises the courts, abuses or prejudices the public for or against a party to the action. An act or writing which is calculated to bring the court into contempt, lower its authority or interfere with due administration of justice is contempt of court.
A scandalous attack on a judge may be punished by attachment and committal as an obstruction of justice. A defamation in respect of a must be calculated to obstruct the course of justice in order to constitute contempt of court. Tempered criticism in good faith does not constitute contempt of court.
The purpose of punishment for contempt of court is not for due purpose for protecting the judge or the court, but for the purpose of protecting the authority of the court and tribunal.
Private communications to judges for the purpose of influencing a decision in a pending matter is contempt of court. This is so whether or not a bribe or other offer is made.
Defamation of the parties which does not interfere with the course of justice is not in itself contempt. Speeches and writings concerning pending proceedings which prejudicing the public against parties are contempt. Damaging misrepresentations concerning the parties which may deter them from proceeding with an action or cause to compromise their proceedings may constitute contempt.
There may be contempt where proceedings are misrepresented and thereby prejudice the parties. The misrepresentation may deter witnesses or induce a witness to give distorted evidence .
Comments on Proceedings
Proceedings must be pending when comments are published. Publications after conclusion of a trial which may affect a new retrial may be contempt.
It is contempt to publish an article in relation to proceedings in a pending criminal prosecution or civil action, which comments on the proceedings. The law uphold the principle of the exclusivity on courts. This principle holds that it is against the public interest for the media to independently conduct a trial and investigation on ongoing proceedings.
The prior publication of a defence may be contempt in some circumstances. The prior publication of a photograph of an accused may be contempt, where identity is likely to arise as an issue on the trial.
The summary jurisdiction on contempt ought to be exercised only where it is likely that publication will substantially interfere with a fair trial. Applications for attachment for contempt are not readily granted when the contempt is slight or where the effect is marginal or inappreciable.
Where the publication is intended or calculated to prejudice a fair trial, the court will look carefully at the circumstances. In particular, it will look at the conduct of the parties and at whether the pending proceedings are genuine or are sought to establish immunity from attacks.
It may be contempt of court to publish pleadings and evidence in a pending case. The court will restrain the publication where it finds that they are calculated to interfere with a fair trial.
It will often be, but not necessarily always, contempt to report or comment on proceedings which have been held in camera. However, in many cases the statutory or other requirement for secrecy and anonymity is precisely because publicity would impair the subject matter of the suit because the case relates to private family affairs, minors or others who are vulnerable. In several such instances, there are statutory provision which have similar effect to the law on contempt.
Interference with Court Officers
Contempt extends to interference with court officer in the course of the administration of justice. It is usually contempt of court, to obstruct an officer of the court, as it interferes with a due administration of justice.
Disturbing proceedings before a court officer, such as a Registrar, Clerk etc. is likely to be contempt. Inducing or attempting to induce a court officer or official to depart from his duty is likely to be contempt in most cases.
Obstructing a process server in the execution of his duty is likely to be contempt of court. Slight obstruction which does not prevent service is unlikely to be contempt. It contempt to interfere with a third party obeying a court order.
It is contempt of court to interfere with possession of a ship which has been arrested under order of court.
Interference with a court appointed receiver, liquidator or sequester may constitute contempt of court. This may be so notwithstanding that the appointed has been improperly procured. It is contempt to interfere with the taking or retention of possession of an asset by a receiver or a liquidator appointed by court, without leave of court.
Where goods have been taken by a sheriff under a writ and are taken from him violently or otherwise rescued, the court may treat the person who so take the goods as being in contempt of court. It is contempt for a person evicted by a sheriff to retake possession. A sheriff may arrest and commit who is resists execution of a writ.
Interfering with Witnesses and Juries
It is contempt to keep cause or assist a witness in evading the service of a subpoena. It is contempt to intimidate a witness or a person likely to be called as a witness. It is contempt to arrest a witness while attending court to give evidence. It is contempt to suppress or to induce a party to suppress evidence,
It is contempt to endeavour to influence a witness, to assault a witness or dismiss an employee because he has given evidence against a party. It is contempt to bribe or attempt to bribe a witness. Merely to persuade a person to give or not to give evidence of itself, may not be contempt.
It is contempt of court to impersonate or interfere with a jury. It is contempt to insult a jury member while performing his duties. Attempting to corrupt or influence a jury is contempt punishable on indictment. Speeches or written documents reflecting on parties which tends to obstruct the administration of justice is contempt,
It is contempt to abuse the process of court. Abuse of process includes taking proceedings which was not bona fide or are frivolous vexations or oppressive. The court will ordinarily strike out such proceedings or pleadings. Beyond this, a court may punish abuse of process as contempt by attachment for the contempt.
Failures by Officers
Solicitors or officers of the court that are subject to special jurisdiction. They may be punished for contempt for breach of their duties to the court. A solicitor may be committed for breach of an undertaking. Improper conduct may be punished as contempt. A person who acts as if he was a solicitor without being duly qualified is guilty of contempt and may be punished as such.
Sheriffs, bailiffs, undersheriffs and their officers may commit offences in the execution of their duties.. They may also be subject to attachment for contempt for breach of the duties of their office. For example, a sheriff who fails to return a writ may be attached for contempt.
Counsel are subject to summary punishment for contempt by the court for misconduct in or out of court. This would cover a range of conduct, must of which would breach basic Bar Counsel ethics. This may include, for example signing frivolous or scandalous pleadings, openly accusing judges of oppression and insulting jury men.
Jurors are subject to punishment for failing to attend when summoned. They are liable to attachment for refusing to be sworn, refusing to give a verdict or for a gross breach of their duty. It is contempt for a juror to discuss the case with members of the public during the hearing or attempt to improperly influence another juror.
Judges may be punished by attachment for unjustly, oppressively or irregularly executing their duties or disobeying High Court writs requiring them to proceed or not to proceed in matters before them.
The Superior Courts (High Court and above) have a general superintending jurisdiction over courts of summary jurisdiction (the District Court). They may prevent them from exceeding jurisdiction. They may punish as contempt, acts amounting to interference with the course of justice before a court of summary jurisdiction. Contempt of a court martial may be treated as contempt of court in the Superior Courts.