Contempt of court is the offence of being disobedient or discourteous towards a court through willful disregard of its authority and dignity. An act of contempt of court can be comprised of disrespectful behaviour in court or it can be comprised of disregard of a court order. Different jurisdictions have different rules as to precisely what acts constitute contempt of court.
Magistrates Court Act
Section 50 of the Queensland Magistrates Court Act 1921 states that a person is in contempt of court if the person:
- Fails to comply with an order of the court without a lawful excuse;
- Willfully insults a magistrate or court staff member whilst at court;
- Willfully interrupts a court proceeding;
- Unlawfully obstructs or assaults someone attending court;
- Disobeys a lawful order or direction by the court during a proceeding;
- Commits any other contempt of court.
This offence is punishable with a maximum of three years imprisonment or a fine of 200 penalty units if the act of contempt involves non-compliance with a court order. In any other case, the maximum penalty is imprisonment for one year or a fine of 84 penalty units.
The court may order a person committing contempt to be excluded from the courtroom or the area where the court is sitting. Court staff may use force to take the person into custody and detain them until the rising of the court. The court may either deal with the person immediately or adjourn the matter to be dealt with on another date.
The Evidence Act
Under Section 390 of the Evidence Act, it is an offence punishable by a maximum of three months imprisonment to assault a witness, a lawyer or a court officer during a proceeding. It is also an offence under this section to deliberately interrupt or obstruct the court, to create a disturbance, attempt to improperly influence someone involved in the proceeding or to deliberately disobey an order or direction given by the court.
Section 644D of the Queensland Criminal Code states that it is contempt of court to fail to comply with a subpoena without a lawful excuse. If a person is issued with a subpoena and fails to attend court to give evidence or to produce documents for the court (whichever is required by the subpoena) they are in contempt of court and may be prosecuted.
Uniform Civil Procedure Rules
Under the Uniform Civil Procedure Rules, the court can bring a respondent before the court if it appears that the person is guilty of contempt committed ‘in the face of the court.’ The court can then direct that the respondent be kept in custody or released pending the disposal of the charge (rule 923).
If you are involved in civil proceedings and another party is in default of court orders, you may want to consider whether they are in contempt of court. Punishing a party for contempt of court is widely considered the most serious step that a civil court can take. The court can take action for contempt on its own motion or a party can also bring an application alleging contempt of court under rule 925. Courts will only punish a party for contempt of court for the most deliberate breaches of a court order.
Before proceeding to make an application for contempt of court, it is advisable to write to the party who is in default and request that they comply with the order. A deliberate continuing refusal to obey may support a finding of contempt.
In order for the court to find a party guilty of contempt, the party must have been personally served with the order (rule 904(1)) and if the order requires the party to do a particular thing, they must have been served with the order within a reasonable time to allow them to comply (rule 904(1)(b)).
If the court finds that a respondent has committed contempt, it may punish them by imposing a criminal penalty under the Penalties and Sentences Act 1992. If the respondent is a corporation, the court may punish it by seizing corporate property or imposing a fine, or both.
Avoid contempt of court
When attending court or going through legal proceedings, it is important to show respect to the court, its staff and its orders and directions at all times. If you are a party to court orders, ensure that you make every attempt to obey them to avoid not only falling into contempt of court but also potentially incurring other adverse legal consequences.
If you need legal advice or assistance please contact Go To Court Lawyers.