Contempt of Court

What is meant by Contempt of Court?

Contempt of court has been described as the improper interference with the administration of justice. Courts must be free to decide on the matters placed before it without being hindered from any outside influence.

The Contempt of Court Act 1981

The Contempt of Court Act 1981 was brought in with the intention of promoting freedom of speech and as a result of a Human Rights decision by the European Court of Human Rights in which it was decided that the previous common law notion of contempt of court in fact breached Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

What does the Act say?

Section 2(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 states that where any publication creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced contempt of court will be found.

Strict Liability

The offence of contempt of court is a strict liability offence. This means that someone who has published material which has interfered with the course of justice will be found in contempt of court regardless of whether they intended to do so.

What needs to be present to establish Contempt of Court?

The following elements need to be established in order for Contempt of Court to be found:

  • There needs to be a publication
  • In relation to proceedings which are active
  • It relates only to a publication which creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings will be seriously impeded or prejudiced

Publication

A publication is defined as to include any speech, writing, broadcast or other communication in whatever form which is addressed to the public at large or a section of the public.

Proceedings which are active

For contempt of court to be found the proceedings must be active as defined by the Contempt of Court Act 1981. There are different tests to establish whether proceedings are active for criminal courts and civil courts.

Criminal Proceedings

Criminal proceedings will become active when one of the following happens:

  • Arrest without a warrant
  • The issue of a warrant for arrest
  • The issue of a summons to appear before the court
  • The service of an indictment or other document specifying the charge
  • An oral charge
  • Criminal proceedings will conclude and therefore cease to become active when one of the following happens:
  • An acquittal or a sentence
  • Any other verdict or finding or other decision which puts an end to the proceedings
  • By discontinuance or operation of law

Civil Proceedings

The Contempt of Court Act 1981 provides that civil proceedings become active from the time when arrangements are first made for the hearing of the case or from when the hearing begins. This active period is deemed to conclude when the proceedings are disposed of by settlement or judgment or are discontinued or withdrawn.

Substantial Risk of Serious Prejudice

To determine whether a publication creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the course of justice the court will consider the following:

  • Whether the publication is likely to come to the attention of a potential jury member
  • What the impact on an ordinary reader at the time of publication is likely to be
  • The timing of the trial and the publication

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For more information on:

  • Attention of a potential jury member
  • What if there is no jury?
  • Impact on the Ordinary Reader
  • Timing of the hearing
  • Other factors taken into consideration
  • Defences
  • Innocent Publication
  • Fair and accurate contemporary reports
  • Discussion of Public Affairs
  • Penalties