“Contempt of court” covers a wide variety of conduct which undermines or has the potential to undermine the course of justice, and the procedures which are designed to deal with them. The law governing contempt of court is vast. The Law Commission published a consultation paper on contempt of court in November 2012. It focused on a number of areas, which are set out below.
Between 2012 and 2014, the Law Commission published three final reports making recommendations for reform of the law in relation to court report, juror misconduct and scandalising the court. These reports can be found in the sub-projects above.
In 2022, Government asked the Law Commission to undertake a further review of the law on contempt of court and consider reform to improve its effectiveness, consistency, and coherence. Details of this review can be found on its project page.
Contempt by publication
The law on contempt by publication must balance the right of a defendant to a fair trial, with the right of the publisher to freedom of expression. There are also concerns that the procedures for dealing with this form of contempt may not be as fair and efficient as possible.
The impact of the new media
Many of the contempts which we are examining are contained in the Contempt of Court Act 1981. This Act pre-dates the internet and there are concerns that the current law cannot adequately deal with contempts committed through the new media.
Contempts committed by jurors
In relation to contempts committed by jurors, there is also a need to ensure that the laws and procedures strike a balance between the public interest in the administration of justice, the defendant’s right to a fair trial, and the rights of the jurors concerned.
Contempt in the face of the court
The powers of the criminal courts to deal with contempt committed in the face of the court are also unsatisfactory. There is uncertainty as to the scope of the common law powers (which apply to the Crown Court), gaps in the statutory provisions (which apply to the magistrates’ courts) and unjustifiable inconsistency between them.
Under section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, the courts have a power to order that contemporary court reporting be postponed, where this is necessary to avoid a substantial risk of prejudice to those or other imminent or pending legal proceedings. There is presently no formal system for communicating the existence of such orders to the media, which creates obvious practical problems and reduces the efficacy of the regime.
Area of law
Professor David Ormerod QC