Contempt of Court: What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

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A man who refused to take an oath or affirmation in the NSW Supreme Court was sentenced to three years in prison. He was found guilty of two counts of contempt of court, one for refusing to give sworn evidence and a second for threatening violence against an officer of the court.

When someone is called as a witness in court, they are required to take an oath or affirmation, swearing: “that the evidence I shall give will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” (see sections 21(4) and 22(2) of the Evidence Act 1995). Testimony given after this oath is called “sworn” evidence.

The point of sworn evidence is to show that the witness:

  1. understands they are under an obligation to tell the truth, and
  2. promises to tell the whole truth, knowing that a failure to do so is against the law.

Understanding the Truth

Witnesses must understand the difference between the truth and a lie before they can give sworn testimony.

If a proposed witness does not know the difference because, for example, they suffer from a severe mental health condition, they are not permitted to give sworn testimony.

Section 12 of the Evidence Act 1995 says that courts will presume that a witness is competent to give evidence, unless it is shown otherwise. Section 13 of the Act allows an application to be made for a witness to be declared incompetent on the basis that they lack the capacity to understand a question of fact, and that incapacity cannot be overcome.

Section 13 allows a person who is not competent, to give unsworn evidence instead. However, such evidence will not normally be given as much weight as sworn evidence.

Failing to Tell the Truth

Refusing or failing to tell the whole truth is a criminal offence which can come with heavy penalties. This is to promote the integrity of the judicial process, and to ensure that courts function effectively and efficiently. It is an important safeguard against innocent people being convicted based upon false evidence, and guilty people escaping punishment.

Lying in court is called “perjury”, and is a criminal offence under section 327 of the Crimes Act 1900, which states that:

“Any person who in or in connection with any judicial proceeding makes any false statement on oath concerning any matter which is material to the proceeding, knowing the statement to be false or not believing it to be true, is guilty of perjury and liable to imprisonment for 10 years.”

Man Sent to Prison for Contempt of Court

The man sent to prison for 3 years was Steven Smith, who was called by the prosecution to testify against his co-accused Raymond Kennedy in a murder case earlier this year.

Smith had already been convicted of the murder and sentenced to 23 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 17 years. A ‘non-parole period’ is the time that a person must spend in prison before being eligible to apply for release.

Smith refused to answer questions when called to the stand, which gave rise to the first charge of contempt of court. He then refused to sit down and threatened a court officer.

He was ultimately sentenced to a “cumulative” period of 3 years imprisonment – which means that 3 years was added to the end of his sentence.

The significant sentence shows just how seriously the courts take a person’s refusal to answer questions, and to otherwise flout the rules of court.

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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Traffic Defence Lawyers.

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