Contempt of court is a court order which, in the context of a court trial or hearing, declares a person or organization to have disobeyed or been disrespectful of the court's authority. Often referred to simply as "contempt," such as a person "held in contempt," it is the judge's strongest power to impose sanctions for acts which disrupt the court's normal process.
A finding of contempt of court may result from a failure to obey a lawful order of a court, showing disrespect for the judge, disruption of the proceedings through poor behaviour, or publication of material deemed likely to jeopardize a fair trial. A judge may impose sanctions such as a fine or jail for someone found guilty of contempt of court. Judges in common law systems usually have more extensive power to declare someone in contempt than judges in civil law systems. The client or person must be proven to be guilty before he/she will be punished.
In civil cases involving disputes between private citizens, the behaviour resulting in the ruling is often directed at one of the parties involved rather than at the court directly.
A person found in contempt of court is called a "contemnor." To prove contempt, the prosecutor or complainant must prove the four elements of contempt:
- Existence of a lawful order
- The potential contemnor's knowledge of the order
- The potential contemnor's ability to comply
- The potential contemnor's failure to comply
In use today
Contempt of court is essentially seen as a form of disturbance that may impede the functionality of the court. The judge may impose fines and/or jail time upon any person committing contempt of court. The person is usually let out upon his agreement to fulfill the wishes of the court. Civil contempt can involve acts of omission. The judge will make use of warnings in most situations that may lead to a person being charged with contempt. It is relatively rare that a person is charged for contempt without first receiving at least one warning from the judge. Constructive contempt, also called consequential contempt is when a person fails to fulfill the will of the court as it applies to outside obligations of the person. In most cases, constructive contempt is considered to be in the realm of civil contempt because of its passive nature.
Indirect contempt is something that is associated with civil and constructive contempt and involves a failure to follow court orders. Criminal contempt includes anything that could be called a disturbance such as repeatedly talking out of turn, bringing forth previously banned evidence, or harassment of any other party in the courtroom. Direct contempt is an unacceptable act in the presence of the judge (in facie curiae), and generally begins with a warning, and may be accompanied by an immediate imposition of punishment. Yawning in some cases can be considered contempt of court.
Contempt of court has a significant impact on journalism in the form of restrictions on court reporting which are set out in statute in the UK.
In Australia a judge may impose a fine or jail. The latter is usually until such time as a person has performed a sincere act of contrition (i.e., purging the offense) or the order is no longer deemed necessary to the carriage of justice.
Criminal offences are found within the Criminal Code of Canada or other federal/provincial laws, with the exception that contempt of court is the only remaining common law offence in Canada.
Contempt of Court includes the following behaviours:
- Fails to maintain a respectful attitude, remain silent or refrain from showing approval or disapproval of the proceeding
- Refuses or neglects to obey a subpoena
- Willfully disobeys a process or order of the Court
- Interfere with the orderly administration of justice or to impair the authority or dignity of the Court
- Officer of the Court fails to perform his or her duties
- Sheriff and/or bailiff does not execute a writ forthwith or does not make a return thereof
Canadian Federal courts
This section applies only to Federal Court of Appeal and Federal Court.
Under Federal Court Rules, section 472, a person who is accused of Contempt needs to be first served with a contempt order and then appear in court to answer the charges. Convictions can only be made when proof beyond a reasonable doubt is achieved.
If it is a matter of urgency or the contempt was done in front of a judge, that person can be punished immediately. Punishment can range from the person being imprisoned for a period of less than five years or until the person complies with the order or fine.
Tax Court of Canada
Under Tax Court of Canada Rules of Tax Court of Canada Act, a person who is found to be in contempt may be imprisoned for a period of less than two years or fined. Similar procedures for serving an order first is also used at the Tax Court.
Different procedures exist for different provincial courts. For example, in British Columbia, Justice of Peace can only issue summon to the offender for Contempt, for which will be dealt with by a judge, even if the offence was done at the face of the Justice.
Judges from the Court of Final Appeal, High Court, District Courts along with members from the various tribunals and Coroner's Court all have the power to impose immediate punishments for contempt in the face of the court, derived from legislation or through common law:
- Insult a judge or justice, witness or officers of the court
- Interrupts the proceedings of the Court
- Interfere with the course of justice
- Misbehaves in court (i.e. use of mobile phone or recording devices without permission)
- Juror who leaves without permission of the court during proceedings
- Disobeying a judgment or court order
- Breach of undertaking
- Breach of a duty imposed upon a solicitor by rules of court
The use of insulting or threatening language in the magistrates' courts or against a magistrate is in breach of HK Laws. Chap 227 Magistrates Ordinance Section 99 which states the magistrate can 'summarily sentence the offender to a fine at level 3 and to imprisonment for 6 months.
In addition, certain appeal boards are given the statutory authority for contempt by them (i.e. Residential Care Home, Hotel and Guesthouse Accommodation, Air Pollution Control, etc.). For contempt in front of these boards, the chairperson will certify the act of contempt to the Court of First Instance who will then proceed with a hearing and determine the punishment.
In English law (a common law jurisdiction) the law on contempt is partly set out in case law, and partly specified in the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Contempt may be a criminal or civil offence. The maximum sentence for criminal contempt is two years.
Disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behaviour toward the judge or magistrates while holding the court, tending to interrupt the due course of a trial or other judicial proceeding, may be prosecuted as "direct" contempt. The term "direct" means that the court itself cites the person in contempt by describing the behaviour observed on the record. Direct contempt is distinctly different from indirect contempt, wherein another individual may file papers alleging contempt against a person who has willfully violated a lawful court order.
Criminal contempt of court
The Crown Court is a superior court of record under the Senior Courts Act 1981 and accordingly has power to punish for contempt of its own motion. The Divisional Court has stated that this power applies in three circumstances:
- Contempt "in the face of the court" (not to be taken literally; the judge does not need to see it, provided it took place within the court precincts or relates to a case currently before that court);
- Disobedience of a court order; and
- Breaches of undertakings to the court.
Where it is necessary to act quickly the judge (even the trial judge) may act to sentence for contempt.
Where it is not necessary to be so urgent, or where indirect contempt has taken place the Attorney General can intervene and the Crown Prosecution Service will institute criminal proceedings on his behalf before a Divisional Court of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice of England and Wales.
Magistrates' Courts are not superior courts of record, but nonetheless have powers granted under the Contempt of Court Act 1981. They may detain any person who insults the court or otherwise disrupts its proceedings until the end of the sitting. Upon the contempt being either admitted or proved the judge or JP may imprison the offender for a maximum of one month, fine them up to GBP 2,500, or do both.
It is contempt of court to bring an audio recording device or picture-taking device of any sort into an English court without the consent of the court.
It is not contempt of court (under section 10 of the Act) for a journalist to refuse to disclose his sources, unless the court has considered the evidence available and determined that the information is "necessary in the interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime."
Strict liability contempt
Under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 it is criminal contempt of court to publish anything which creates a real risk that the course of justice in proceedings may be seriously impaired. It only applies where proceedings are active, and the Attorney General has issued guidance as to when he believes this to be the case, and there is also statutory guidance. The clause prevents the newspapers and media from publishing material that is too extreme or sensationalist about a criminal case until the trial is over and the jury has given its verdict.
Section 2 of the Act limits the common law presumption that conduct may be treated as contempt regardless of intention: now only cases where there is a substantial risk of serious prejudice to a trial are affected.
In civil proceedings there are two main ways in which contempt is committed:
- Failure to attend at court despite a subpoena requiring attendance. In respect of the High Court, historically a writ of latitat would have been issued, but now a bench warrant is issued, authorizing the tipstaff to arrange for the arrest of the individual, and imprisonment until the date and time the court appoints to next sit. In practice a groveling letter of apology to the court is sufficient to ward off this possibility, and in any event the warrant is generally 'backed for bail' i.e. bail will be granted once the arrest has been made and a location where the person can be found in future established.
- Failure to comply with a court order. A copy of the order, with a "penal notice" i.e. notice informing the recipient that if they do not comply they are subject to imprisonment is served on the person concerned. If, after that, they breach the order, proceedings can be started and in theory the person involved can be sent to prison. In practice this rarely happens as the cost on the claimant of bringing these proceedings is significant and in practice imprisonment is rarely ordered as an apology or fine are usually considered appropriate.
Under American jurisprudence, acts of contempt are divided into two types.
Direct contempt is that which occurs in the presence of the presiding judge (in facie curiae) and may be dealt with summarily: the judge notifies the offending party that he or she has acted in a manner which disrupts the tribunal and prejudices the administration of justice. After giving the person the opportunity to respond, the judge may impose the sanction immediately.
Indirect contempt occurs outside the immediate presence of the court and consists of disobedience of a court's prior order. Generally a party will be accused of indirect contempt by the party for whose benefit the order was entered. A person cited for indirect contempt is entitled to notice of the charge and an opportunity for hearing of the evidence of contempt and, since there is no written procedure, may or may not be allowed to present evidence in rebuttal.
Contempt of court in a civil suit is generally not considered to be a criminal offense, with the party benefiting from the order also holding responsibility for the enforcement of the order. However, some cases of civil contempt have been perceived as intending to harm the reputation of the plaintiff, or to a lesser degree, the judge or the court.
Sanctions for contempt may be criminal or civil. If a person is to be punished criminally, then the contempt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but once the charge is proven, then punishment (such as a fine or, in more serious cases, imprisonment) is imposed unconditionally. The civil sanction for contempt (which is typically incarceration in the custody of the sheriff or similar court officer) is limited in its imposition for so long as the disobedience to the court's order continues: once the party complies with the court's order, the sanction is lifted. The imposed party is said to "hold the keys" to his or her own cell, thus conventional due process is not required. The burden of proof for civil contempt, however, is a preponderance of the evidence, and theoretically punitive sanctions (punishment) can only be imposed after due process but the due process is unpublished.
In civil contempt cases there is no principle of proportionality. In Chadwick v. Janecka (3d Cir. 2002), a U.S. court of appeals held that H. Beatty Chadwick could be held indefinitely under federal law, for his failure to produce US$ 2.5 mill. as state court ordered in a civil trial. Chadwick had been imprisoned for nine years at that time and continued to be held in prison until 2009, when a state court set him free after 14 years, making his imprisonment the longest on a contempt charge to date.
The United States Marshals Service is the agency component that first holds all federal prisoners. It uses the Prisoner Population Management System /Prisoner Tracking System. The only types of records that are disclosed as being in the system are those of "federal prisoners who are in custody pending criminal proceedings." The records of "alleged civil contempors" are not listed in the Federal Register as being in the system leading to a potential claim for damages under The Privacy Act, 5 USC section 552a (e)(4)(I).
Because of the broad protections of the First Amendment, with extremely limited exceptions, unless the media outlet is a party to the case, a media outlet cannot be found in contempt of court for reporting about a case because a court cannot order the media in general not to report on a case or forbid it from reporting facts discovered publicly. Newspapers cannot be closed because of their content.
Notes and references
- Scarce, Rik. "Contempt of Court: A Scholar's Battle for Free Speech from behind Bars" (2005) (ISBN 0759106436).
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