Whenever a person attends court, it is important that they adhere to court etiquette. This means being quiet and courteous while in court and obeying any directions the judge, magistrate or other court staff give. Failing to obey the directions of court staff or being disrespectful in court can result in criminal charges such as contempt of court. This is the case regardless of whether a person is a party to proceedings, supporting a party to proceedings, or is a member of the community who is not involved in the matter.
In South Australia, contempt of court offences are governed by the Magistrates Court Act, the Summary Offences Act, the District Court Criminal Rules and the Supreme Court Civil Rules. Which offence a person is charged with may depend on their relationship to the proceedings and also the jurisdiction the proceedings are in.
Contempt of court
If a person is required to give evidence in the Magistrates Court and does not do so, the offence most likely to be charged is contempt of court. Section 21 of the Magistrates Court Act 1991 states that it is contempt of court for a person who is called to give evidence or to produce evidentiary material to a court:
- to refuse or fail to do so; or
- to refuse or fail to make an oath or affirmation when required to do so.
This is the case regardless of whether the person came to court in answer to a summons, was brought to court under a warrant or came to court of their own volition.
Contempt in the face of the court
If a person attending the Magistrates Court insults an officer of the court or disrupts proceedings, they are most likely to be charged with ‘contempt in the face of the court’. Under Section 45 of the Magistrates Court Act, a person commits contempt in the face of the court if they interrupt court proceedings, insult a Magistrate, Registrar or other court officer or refuse to obey a lawful direction of the court.
An offence of contempt of court in the Magistrates Court is punishable by a maximum penalty of a fine of $8,000 or imprisonment for two years.
Contempt in the District and Supreme Courts
A person can also be charged with contempt of court or contempt in the face of the court in the District or Supreme Courts. The penalty for contempt of court in the Supreme Court or District Court is a fine, or imprisonment, or both. The court can order a term of imprisonment be served in the event of non-payment of the fine. The court may also order the offender to pay for the cost of the contempt of court proceedings.
Contempt proceedings initiated by party
When a party claims to have been prejudiced by another party’s contempt of court, it may apply to the court to have the party charged with contempt of court. This is most likely to occur when a party has disobeyed a court order.
If the court is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the party is guilty of contempt of court, it may require the registrar to formulate a written charge outlining the details of the alleged offence. The court will then issue either a summons or a warrant to have the accused appear before the court to answer the charge.
Disrespectful conduct in court
Section 60 of the Summary Offences Act 1953 makes it an offence for a person who is a party to court proceedings to intentionally engage in disrespectful conduct in court during those proceedings. Before a person can be charged with this offence, the court must have given the person a warning that disrespectful conduct may result in a criminal charge. A person cannot be charged with disrespectful conduct in court and contempt of court in respect of the same conduct. Disrespectful conduct in court is punishable by a maximum penalty of a fine of $1250 or imprisonment for three months.
It is a defence to this charge if the conduct arose because of a physical disability or a cognitive impairment, including a mental illness.
If you require legal advice or representation in a criminal law matter or in any other legal matter, please contact Go To Court Lawyers.