Contempt of Court

Current project status

  • Initiation: Could include discussing scope and terms of reference with lead Government Department
  • Pre-consultation: Could include approaching interest groups and specialists, producing scoping and issues papers, finalising terms of project
  • Consultation: Likely to include consultation events and paper, making provisional proposals for comment
  • Policy development: Will include analysis of consultation responses. Could include further issues papers and consultation on draft Bill
  • Reported: Usually recommendations for law reform but can be advice to government, scoping report or other recommendations

The Law Commission of England and Wales has been asked by the Government to review the law on contempt of court and consider reform to improve its effectiveness, consistency, and coherence.


Terms of reference
Summary of consultation paper
Consultation paper

The problem

“Contempt of court” refers to a wide variety of conduct that may impede or interfere with a court case or the administration of justice.

Examples include deliberately breaching a court order, refusing to answer the court’s questions if called as a witness, or releasing photographs or publicly commenting on developments in court when reporting restrictions are in place.

The development of the law of contempt has been unsystematic, resulting in a regime that is often disordered and unclear. Problems arise from the confusing distinction between civil and criminal contempt of court, the multiple ways in which contempt can be committed, and the overlap between the law of contempt and criminal offences relating to the administration of justice, such as perverting the course of justice.

There are also growing concerns about the impact of social media and technological advancements on the administration of justice.

A clearer set of laws and rules would help to ensure that the law of contempt operates as a principled, comprehensible, and fair regime for all parties involved.

This project builds on some of the Commission’s previous work on contempt of court.

Our review

The Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General’s Office have asked the Law Commission to review the law on both criminal and civil contempt and in particular to consider:

  • codification and simplification of the law of contempt, and the extent to which certain contempts should be defined as criminal offences;
  • the responsibility for the adjudication, investigation and prosecution of contempts, as well as courts’ and tribunals’ powers and protections relating to contempt proceedings;
  • the effectiveness of the current provisions on committing contempt by publishing information on court proceedings, including consideration of the right to freedom of expression protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights;
  • the appropriateness of penalties for contempt of court; and
  • whether problems might arise from procedure in contempt of court proceedings, and whether there is scope for improving the relevant procedural rules.

The consultation paper

On 9 July 2024 we published a consultation paper containing our provisional proposals. The consultation paper and a summary of the consultation paper are available above (in the “documents section”). 

The consultation paper sets out our provisional proposals for reform of the law of contempt in England and Wales. Our objective in making these proposals is to produce a law of contempt that is easier to understand, fairer, and that better protects the administration of justice.  

First, our proposals seek to clarify and codify the law of contempt. Examples include our proposals that would do away with centuries-old distinctions between “criminal contempt” and “civil contempt” in favour of a framework for liability with three distinct forms of contempt: general contempt; contempt by breach of order or undertaking; and contempt by publication when proceedings are active. These proposed forms of contempt do not alter fundamentally the foundations of contempt liability, but rather clarify and codify the elements required to prove contempt. 

Secondly, some of our proposals seek to enhance transparency and accountability by, for example, requiring the publication of judgments in contempt cases where the court imposes imprisonment and data relating to the Attorney General’s contempt function. 

Thirdly, some are directed towards greater consistency and ensuring fairness for defendants. For instance, we make proposals for a clear, comprehensive and, where possible, uniform procedure that enables the courts to deal fairly, efficiently, effectively, and consistently with conduct that may constitute contempt of court. We also consider the sanctions that may be imposed when a person commits contempt of court. Where the main options under the current law are imprisonment or a fine, our proposals include expanding the sanctions options to include community sentences. Community sentences include conditions, for example to carry out unpaid work, adhere to a curfew or residence requirement, undergo mental health or drug and alcohol treatment, or comply with restrictions and monitoring of whereabouts. 

Fourthly, our proposals aim to improve some of the fundamental protections provided by the rule of law. For example, the law of contempt does not apply in many tribunals and that is a significant constraint on their ability to address conduct that disrupts proceedings or breaches orders made to protect the parties. Our proposals would empower certain tribunals to deal with contempt, enabling them to control their proceedings more effectively. 

Next steps

We are seeking views on our proposals. The public consultation period will run for four months, closing on 8 November 2024. 

  • The consultation paper and a summary of the consultation paper are available above (in the “documents section”).
  • You can respond to the consultation online by going to our contempt of court consultation site. Alternatively, if you wish to submit a response by post or email then please see page (i) of the consultation paper.

We will use the responses to the consultation to develop our final recommendations for reform, which ultimately will be published in a report.

We expect the report will be published in late 2025.


By email to by phone 02033 340200.

Documents and downloads

Project details

Area of law

Criminal law


Professor Penney Lewis