Last week, I discussed part of the Court’s weaponry for breaches of an Injunction coupled with a penal notice, to make a finding of contempt of court, and fine and/or imprison the contemnor.
This week, I consider another aspect of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, namely offences of contempt against Magistrates, or other officers of the court, or lawyers.
I recall an incident which occurred to me many years ago at a Magistrates’ Court, no longer in existence, before a Stipendiary Magistrate, no longer alive….[Golly ,that sounds depressing doesn’t it? I have finally become my Grandfather recalling stories…when I were a lad…No. I am not a Grandfather. My eldest son is 12…so far as I know…[purposely ambiguous]]:
To cut a long story short, I was successful in defending a charge against my client of domestic violence [Former wife was being economic with the truth, to gain points for contact and squeeze more money from said client], having destroyed her version of events with some closely chosen questions in cross-examination, before entering the Court she called me all manner of things, with the suffix, Jew
[Nice], followed by an attempt to run me over within the precincts of the Court, in the Court car park. [Not so funny at the time, but she was a very bad driver, and hit a wall instead, because funnily enough I did not stand still when I heard the motor rev, and saw the whites of her eyes, and side-stepped a few metres].
Feeling foolish, but hoping the Court would support me, I sheepishly returned to Court, and asked to see the Stipe, whereupon his words were: ‘You are not hurt are you? What are you expecting me to do about it now? She has left’.
I muttered something under my breath about contempt in the face of the court, but let the matter rest because after all, my client would not be paying for this further advocacy, and my firm would not expect me to waste time which could not be recovered in cost somewhere.
So there you have it. I was spineless, for the good of my client, and so as not to upset the Court. This was at a time before CCTV, so my word against hers, and of course, my client had to have a continuing relationship with his former wife for the good of the children, so all in all I was muted.
It certainly was not acceptable then to be so rude to officers of the Court. It ought not to be acceptable now, but somehow many Magistrates and other officers of the Court alike, will turn a blind eye to the collapse and dearth of good values in Society so that swearing, cursing, and insults are taken in their stride, and rudeness somehow becomes acceptable.
How did we get into this mess that swearing at a Police officer should no longer be wrong? How low have we as a Society sunk so as not to respect our elders or authoritative figures trying to uphold and administer justice?
Why has a hard line not been taken? Possibly because of a lot of paperwork to be completed if a complaint is taken further. Probably because weighing up punishment for unacceptable behaviour against other cases that need to be heard in a daily list, in terms of efficiency, it is easier to ignore the flow of rudeness and…contempt for values, contempt for authority, no respect
Issues relating to such contempt, appear at Section 12 of the 1981 Act.
The section reads as follows:
’12 (1) A magistrates’ court has jurisdiction under this section to deal with any person who-
(a) wilfully insults the justice or justices, any witness before or officer of the court or any solicitor or counsel having business in the court, during his or their sitting or attendance in court or in going to or returning from the court; or
(b) wilfully interrupts the proceedings of the court or otherwise misbehaves in court’.
The term ‘insult’, is given an ordinary meaning in this context.
A wolf whistle to a good looking man or woman member of the jury is insulting, and likely punishable with a fine. [See R v Powell The Times, June 5 1993]
But, a Solicitor who criticised the Court for their appalling listing system, and the fact that he had had to wait hours to be seen, having been moved from one Court to another, who was then placed into custody to cool down, was considered on Appeal to be an inappropriate use of Section 12 of the 1981 Act. [Unreported…ok, facts entirely made up, but how I wished sometimes I had vented my frustration at someone somewhere], but see for similar case: R v Tamworth Justices Ex p. Walsh, The Times, .
The intention has to be established of someone causing such a disturbance as to interrupt the Court, whether inside or outside. So, building works will unlikely be contempt, if they are planned works, whereas someone who knows that banging a big base drum underneath the window of a Court purposely causing an interruption, knowing there is a risk he may achieve his objective, is likely to be contempt contrary to Section 12(1)(b) of the 1981 Act.
Consequences of contempt?
The Magistrates can impose a fine of up to £2,500 or imprisonment for no longer than 1 month, or both. Worse still, the fine will count as a sum adjudged to be paid by conviction. All in all, one should think wisely about the Lawyer, officer of the court, or Magistrate they choose either to insult or interrupt.
You should not take a cynical view that I have alluded to, that we are all thick-skinned, and would never impose or demand such a fine or imprisonment against a potential contemnor. Some Magistrates may take that view. Others will NOT stand for it, when placed into context outside of the usual parameters of stress and frustration generally.
Judges and legal types should be slow to anger, and should have a degree of thick skin. They should also recognise of course when a contemnor needs to be rebuked and punished, or else the entire system breaks down.
Professor Rosen is a Solicitor-Advocate, Partner and head of Litigation at Darlingtons Solicitors. He is a member of the London Solicitors’ Litigation Association, strategic director of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners UK Chapter, and an associate Professor of Law at Brunel University specialising in Civil Fraud and Criminal Fraud.
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