What is contempt of court?
Contempt of court can be defined as “an act or omission calculated to interfere with the administration of justice.”
If a contempt of court has been committed, the Attorney-General (A-G) can initiate legal proceedings if to do so would be in the public interest.
If there are concerns about a certain case, the A-G can publish an advisory note to the media and the public advising people to take care not to act in contempt of court.
There are three main types of contempt:
- Publication contempt
- Juror contempt
- Contempt in civil cases.
What is publication contempt?
On occasion, material is published in a newspaper, on the television, radio, website or social media that risks damaging a trial. Publication in all forms of media is covered by the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
Publication may be material that non-journalists publish – often via social media – which spreads from there.
Once a suspect has been arrested or civil proceedings have started, the Contempt of Court Act protects them from any publication that may prejudice or hinder the course of justice.
For instance, prejudicial material could be information about a suspect’s previous convictions. This information could adversely affect the way a juror deliberates on a case to the extent that their prejudice means the trial cannot proceed. In this example, the material may be in contempt of court and the Law Officers can bring legal action against the people responsible for publishing it.
What is juror contempt?
A juror may be found to be in contempt of court if they disobey a judge’s order or inform a person who is not on the jury about the jury’s thoughts and decisions on the case they are deliberating on.
Sometimes, a judge will handle contempt cases immediately, such as when a juror disrupts a trial or does not arrive at court on time. However, when more detailed consideration is needed, a judge will often refer to the A-G for advice.
What is contempt in civil cases?
In a civil case, it is contempt of court when one side makes a false statement in support of their case. In this instance, the A-G may be requested to consider whether or not contempt proceedings should be started.
Naming people – People who allege that they are victims of sexual offences automatically receive anonymity for life whether they are adults or children. However, they can opt to lift their anonymity at any time.
Naming people is not contempt, as naming complainants in sexual offences is a criminal offence, but the A-G has a role to play since their consent to a prosecution is needed.
Police investigate breaches of anonymity and pass their recommendations to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for a decision on prosecution. If the CPS decides that there is enough evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction, the case information will be relayed to the A-G for them to decide if the public interest requires a prosecution. If the A-G agrees, the CPS prosecutes the case in the normal way.
Breaching a court order – On occasion, a judge makes an order preventing the reporting of certain information during the course of a trial.
If these reporting restrictions are broken, this constitutes contempt and the court may ask the A-G to consider whether contempt proceedings should be brought.
Injunctions are also court orders, the breach of which may be contempt. In the majority of cases involving injunctions, the person or entity who originally requested the injunction decides whether they wish to pursue contempt proceedings.