Contempt of court refers to a particular type of behaviour defined as anything which interferes with or impedes the administration of justice, or undermine the authority, dignity or performance of the court.
If you have been following the trial of Hey Dad! actor Robert Hughes, being heard at the Downing Centre District Court, you may be aware of the concern about whether it is possible to get a fair trial in a highly publicised case. The ABC reports that Hughes’ lawyer believes that his client could not get a fair trial because of the negative media coverage.
The publication of any kind of material that could prejudice the right to a fair trial is contempt of court, and one article recently published online about Hughes did just that. Although the article was hastily removed, it was referred to the NSW Attorney-General because it implied that the defendant in the ‘Hey Dad’ case was guilty, even though the court hadn’t yet reached a verdict.
The reasoning behind that legislation is fairly obvious: if the media have already condemned him, this will prejudice Hughes (or anyone’s) right to a fair trial. Last month Hughes’ lawyer stated that Hughes would certainly appeal.
Contempt of court is anything that a broad category and as well as the publication of anything that could prejudice the course of justice. While just being angry is not contempt, the list can include things like:
- Swearing at and abusing the magistrate or judge
- Filming witnesses in order to intimidate them
- Taking photos of jury members or court proceedings
- Refusing to take an oath, or give evidence
- Disobeying court orders
- To persist in being noisy in court or keep interrupting the proceedings
- Statements about a judge’s conduct or their decisions that are influenced by factors other than evidence in court
- Destroying documents that are likely to be required in court proceedings
- Impeding access to courts
Some of the above are no-brainers, while you might not have been aware that others were quite so serious.
Not everyone is aware that many of these actions actually constitute an offence.
One woman, after finding out that her best friend’s husband was a jury member, had gone into the courtroom to take a picture of him. The photo on her phone also captured the images of at least eight other members of the jury.
This was a serious offence, as law protects the identity of jury members.
But the woman taking the photo had no idea she was acting in contempt of court and was shocked when her phone was confiscated.
She was placed on bail and told to get legal representation. Although the charge was later dismissed without conviction, serious penalties can be attached to contempt of court.
If you have been found guilty, or alleged to be guilty of contempt, you are what is called a ‘contemnor’, and as a ‘contemnor’ you could be up against a fine or 28 days imprisonment at the District Court (although Supreme Courts are empowered to hand out even heftier penalties).
Generally, contemnors should be given a chance to ‘purge their contempt’, which means changing your actions and complying with the law. If, for example if you refused to give evidence in court and were charged with contempt of court, deciding to give evidence (as well as a sincere apology and undertaking to abide by the courts’ orders in the future) will purge you of your contempt.
If you have been called to appear before the Downing Centre District Court, keep in mind the above restrictions so that you don’t inadvertently act in contempt of court – don’t take photos in the court room and keep your behaviour polite. If it is you appearing before the magistrate, being rude, even if you don’t get charged with contempt, certainly will not help your case!