Contempt of court

April 2004

13.28 Contempt of court - background and description

The term "contempt of court" is of ancient origin having been used in England certainly since the thirteenth century and probably earlier. At common law, a contempt is an act or omission calculated to interfere with the due administration of justice.

A person guilty of contempt is described as a contemnor.


13.29 Types of contempt

Contempt may be civil or criminal. The criminal standard of proof i.e. beyond reasonable doubt, applies to both (Dean v Dean [1987] 1 FLR 517 CA). A typical civil contempt might be conduct involving a breach, or assisting a breach, of a court order. Criminal contempts include assaulting a judge, or anyone else in court.

Failure to co-operate in the course of a public examination despite attendance at it may also constitute a contempt (Official Receiver v Cummings-John [2000] BPIR 320).


13.30 Penalties for contempt

The court's power to punish for contempt of court may be exercised by an order for committal to prison or by other means including a fine.

[Contempt of Court Act 1981]

Superior courts, e.g. the High Court can imprison for a fixed period of up to two years. The county and magistrates’ courts can imprison for up to one month.


13.31 Application for committal

Where a contempt occurs at court (sometimes called in the face of the court), the judge involved will generally deal with it. The High Court has jurisdiction to make an order of committal for contempt in the face of the court by its own motion , as does a judge of the county court. A district judge only has the power to make a committal order where it is specifically provided for under an enactment.

Notes: [CPR98 sch 1 RSC order 52 and practice direction RSC 52, CPR 98 sch 2 CCR order 29]

[County Court Act 1984 s118]

Otherwise, a written application must be made for committal (for contempt) on which the official receiver should consult Technical Section.

The application must state exactly what the alleged contemnor has done or omitted to do which constitutes a contempt of court with sufficient detail to enable him to meet the charge. The necessary information must be given in the notice itself. If lengthy particulars are required it is permissible to include them in a schedule or addendum to the notice, provided that they form part of the notice itself. It is not permissible to refer in the notice to a witness statement or other separate document for particulars which ought to be in the notice (Chiltern District Council v. Keane [1985] 1 W.L.R. 619, Harmsworth v. Harmsworth [1987] 1 W.L.R. 1676).


13.32 Purging

When a person is in contempt of court, he/she may cease to be so by apologising to the court, or "purging the contempt".


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