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Contempt of court

From Academic Kids

Contempt of court is the failure to obey a lawful order of a court, disrespect for the judge, disruption of the proceedings through poor behavior, 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. Typically judges in common law systems have more extensive power to declare someone in contempt than judges in civil law systems.

Often stated simply as "in contempt".

Contents

England and Wales

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 offense.

All courts are protected by the law on contempt, but only courts of record have a power at common law to punish for contempt.

Criminal contempt of court

The Crown Court is a court of record under Supreme Court 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:

  1. 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);
  2. Disobedience of a court order; and
  3. 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 instute criminal proceedings on his behalf before the Divisional Court of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice of England and Wales (Criminal Division).

Magistrates Courts are not courts of record, but nonetheless have powers granted under the Contempt of Court Act 1981. They may detain any person who insults the court until the end of the session, and imprison them for up to a month, and fine them up to 1500.

It is contempt of court to bring a tape recorder or camera of any sort into an English court without the consent of the court: this is in stark contrast to the USA where the filming of trials is commonplace.

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 impared. It only applies where proceedings are active, and the Attorney-General has issued guidance as to when be 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 serious prejudice may be caused are affected.

Civil contempt

In civil proceedings there are two main ways in which contempt is committed:

  1. Failure to attend at court despite a subpoena requiring attendance. In respect of the High Court, historicially a writ of Latitat would have been issued, but now a Bench Warrant issued, authorising 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 grovelling 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.
  2. 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 never happens as the cost on the claiming of bringing these proceedings is immense and in practice imprisonment is never ordered as an apology or fine are usually considered appropriate.

United States

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 facia curia), 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, and after giving the person the opportunity to respond, 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 to present evidence in rebuttal.

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 burden of proof for civil contempt, however, is a preponderance of the evidence.

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