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It's contempt

Court orders are meant to be obeyed. At some time in Barbados’ history the courts and the administration of justice in general were viewed by the populace with reverential respect bordering on awe but those days appear to be long gone. The courts themselves can assist in bringing back the glory days by enforcing obedience to its own orders which can be achieved by way of committal to prison for contempt of court in egregious cases.

Contempt of court has been defined in AG v Punch Limited [2003] 1 All E.R. 289 as wrongful conduct which interferes with the course of justice. The power of the court to punish for contempt is grounded both in the common law and statute. Section 24 of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act, Cap. 117A of the Laws of Barbados preserves the courts powers and provides that it “has the same jurisdiction as heretofore to deal with cases of contempt, and all such jurisdiction as is vested in that court by this Act or any other enactment”.

Contempt falls into two categories, civil and criminal. Civil contempt is the breach of an order of the court and the proceedings for such are instituted by the other party to an action where the contempt affects them. The breach complained of must have been wilful or deliberate. Before the proceedings can be instituted, a certified copy of the order must be served personally on the offending party before any time period for compliance specified in the order. In any event, the court may dispense with service of the order in cases where the party in breach was present in court when the order was made or there is proof that the order has come to his notice by some other means before the time limited for compliance.

On the other hand, criminal contempt is any other conduct which interferes with the administration of justice and the proceedings to punish for contempt are instituted by the Crown. As with any criminal matter there must not only be the breach but also the requisite mental element or intention (mens rea) as indicated by the court in AG v Times Newspapers Ltd. [1991] 2 All E.R. 398. Criminal contempt includes among other things, actions committed in the face of the court such as threats, insulting outbursts, interfering with jurors and generally disrupting the proceedings. Contempt committed outside of court can include threatening or interfering with witnesses, judges and the officers of the court as well as the making of false statements.

A person or newspaper may also be guilty of contempt by publishing matter which tends to interfere with the course of the administration of justice. This can be proved by showing for example that material has been published which questions the court’s impartiality thereby undermining public confidence in the judicial system, by prejudging the issues in a case or by scandalising the court. It is for this reason that generally persons refrain from commenting on ongoing court matters (matters which are sub judice). It is a defence to show that the publication is an accurate report of what actually took place in open court, that the matters concerned are of general public interest or that the publication was made innocently.

On the hearing of the committal application the court has any number of options at its disposal in dealing with the offender. The court may, among other things, order the payment of a fine, grant an injunction to restrain the continuation of any conduct complained of, require the giving of security for good behaviour, commit to prison for contempt, allow time for the breach to be rectified (known as purging of the contempt), dismiss the application or make no order.

Any person who is aggrieved by an order punishing him for either civil or criminal contempt of court may appeal to the Court of Appeal pursuant to its powers under section 57 of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act.

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