Wikipedia defines a contempt of court as the offence of being disrespectful or discourteous to the court or its officers in the form of behaviour that wilfully or deliberately disregards or disrespects the authority, justice and dignity of the court.
There are two kinds of contempt: (1) where the person openly disrespects the court or its officers in the courtroom or outside the courtroom and (2) failure to obey a court order.
Both the Civil Procedure Rules 2002 Part 18.13 and 18.14 and the Penal Code of Vanuatu Chapter 135, Section 82 allow the court to deal with any issue of contempt that comes before it.
Is a contempt of court serious?
A contempt is a very serious matter. If you are found in contempt the court can fine you, that is, cause you to pay money or the court can put you in jail for a time.
What is a contempt in the face of the court?
This does not literally mean that the disrespectful behaviour took place before the Judge and the Judge saw it. While it could be a disrespectful behaviour before the Judge it could also be a behaviour which took place on the court grounds or a behaviour in relation to a case before the court.
What happens when you are in contempt of court?
Either the court on its own may find you in contempt or an individual or lawyer can file an application to find you in contempt or you may file an application for the court to find someone in a case with you in contempt. Whether it is the court who declares you to be in contempt or another person, the court or the individual must let you know what they consider the contempt to be and give you time to either answer in court or in writing before any judgment can be passed. If you are found guilty the court will place a punishment on you. The court may make you pay money or may send you to prison or may deny you some later benefit from the case or prevent you from taking a step that may later hurt your case.
What can constitute a contempt of court?
Doing something can be considered a contempt as much as not doing something. You can be found to be in contempt in both the civil and the criminal court. Some examples of contempt could be:
- Being disrespectful to the court such as dressing inappropriately or using language considered disrespectful.
- Being loud in court or openly showing approval such as nodding when a witness is giving evidence or disapproval of the proceedings such as laughing when a witness is giving evidence, rolling your eyes when the Judge or another person is speaking or turning your back on the court.
- Refusing to or not coming to court when summoned.
- Wilfully disobeying an order of the court.
- Repeatedly talking when it is not your turn to speak.
- Continuously bringing evidence before the court that has been previously banned.
- Harassing another party in the courtroom.
- Refusing to stand when a Judge enters the courtroom or walking out before a Judge dismisses you.
- Insulting a judge, an officer of the court or a witness.
- Interrupting court proceedings.
- Conduct such as using mobile phones in court or recording devices without the permission of the court.
NOTE: Both lawyers and individuals and companies can be held in contempt of court.
What are the different punishments for contempt of court?
If you are guilty of a civil contempt, whether in the face of the court or not, the Judge can punish you by fining you or have you imprisoned for a period the court decides. If it is a company the court can order that their property be seized or the court can release you with conditions.
Under the Penal Code the punishment for contempt of court is 5 years imprisonment. If the contempt is done in the face of the court then the court has the power to detain the person in custody and can fine them up to VT5,000.
How to deal with a contempt
If it appears to the court that you have committed a contempt in the face of the court, the court must tell you what the contempt is and give you an opportunity to answer as to why the court should not find you in contempt and punish you. Your best response would be to properly say why you did what you did if you have a good reason and ask for leniency. If you do not have a good reason then simply own up to the behaviour and apologise and promise not to repeat it. This is usually enough to satisfy the court providing it is not something you have done in the past and providing the court believes you are truly sorry.
If you are accused of being in contempt by another party in the case then they would be required to make their accusation in writing and serve you with a copy. You will be given time to reply and be heard by the court before the court would rule as to whether you were guilty or not.
REMEMBER: Be respectful to the court and its officers as well as all parties in the matter at all times, both in and outside the court and obey any orders that the court gives to you. if you do this you will never have any issue to answer on contempt before the court.
DISCLAIMER – This is a legal column to provide basic information on the law and court procedure. It is not to be used as a substitute for legal advice but to be used only as a starting point in understanding what you might need and what you might need to do.