Understanding the Law
August 15, 2014

In contempt of court

The court is an important institution which deals with matters which have grave consequences. In most cases, one party will win and the other will lose. It is not unusual for a party to be dissatisfied with the decisions of the court and to react in a way that is disrespectful to the court. The court will not entertain any sort of disrespect and it is advisable to approach the Court of Appeal rather than engage in disreputable behaviour by taking matters into one’s own hands.{{more}}

Anyone, whether a party in a proceeding, witness or onlooker, who is willfully disobedient to the court or who wantonly and excessively disrupts the normal process of a court, may be said to be “in contempt of court.” The person who is guilty of any of the above mentioned acts is regarded as a contemnor. The judge has the power to impose sanction on a contemnor who insults the dignity of the court. A sanction may either be in the form of imprisonment or a fine. Contempt may occur in the criminal or civil court.

Contempt in the Criminal Court

When contempt occurs in the court room it is regarded as being “in the face of the court,” as it happens where the contemnor obstructs or interferes with the proper functioning of the court; for example, where he shouts or insults the judge or assaults officers of the court within the court.

There are many ways in which a person could be in contempt of court. If a juror misbehaves in a way as to lower the dignity of the court she or he may be cited by the judge for contempt. A witness who refuses to be sworn or to answer a question put to him/her by an examining counsel or the judge could be in contempt of court. A lawyer may represent his client aggressively, but he cannot indulge in outrageous behaviour otherwise he would have to give account of his behaviour in contempt proceedings. Taking of photographs in court is not allowed and anyone who insists on doing so could have to answer accordingly. However, video cameras may be used on special occasions, only with the consent of the judge. Any publication that is likely to prejudice a fair trial could lead to contempt proceedings against persons such as editors, publishers, printers distributors and reporters.

Contempt “in the face of the court” is not restricted to inside of the courtroom. A person who commits acts or says words out of the earshot of the judge on the compound or in the precincts of the court is guilty of contempt in the face of the court.

Contempt in Civil Court

Similar occurrences in the civil court could have the same effect as in the criminal court; but, in addition, contempt of court in a civil matter may occur where a person defies or disobeys a court order or judgment. A court order is the result of the deliberation of the judge in a disputed matter and disobedience to an order will obviously lead to a diminution in the authority of the court. Contempt proceeding is one form of protecting the authority of the court.

With contempt, evidence would have to be heard in court in order to find guilt. It is the standard practice and considered doctrine that the contemnor is dealt with by the court that is insulted. Defying the court and not turning up to court for a matter could lead to the issuance of a bench warrant in both civil and criminal court.

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.

E-mail address is: exploringthelaw@yahoo.com