Contempt of court is an offence under section 24 of the Local Court Act 2007 and section 199 of the District Court Act 1973, which carries a maximum penalty of 28 days in prison and/or a fine of 20 penalty units.
The laws and procedures relating to contempt in the Supreme Court are contained in Part 55 of the Supreme Court Rules 1970.
The prosecution is required to prove a number of facts beyond a reasonable doubt in order to establish the offence, and a person is entitled to an acquittal if they are unable to do so.
There are also a number of legal defences available to those who are going to court for the offence.
If you have been charged with contempt of court, call Sydney Criminal Lawyers anytime on 02 9261 8881 to arrange a free first conference with an experienced criminal defence lawyer who will review the allegations made against you, explain your options and advise you of the best way forward.
Read on for more information about contempt of court, including the offence itself, the legal test the prosecution must meet, your options, the available defences and the types of penalties that may be imposed.
What is Contempt of Court?
A contempt of court is an act that has the tendency to interfere with or undermine the authority, performance, or dignity of the court or those who participate in court proceedings.
The following conduct has been found to meet the legal test for contempt:
- Protracted swearing and yelling at a magistrate,
- Filming witnesses in an attempt to intimidate them,
- Evading questions in court or refusing to answer them,
- Refusing to take an oath or affirmation in court,
- Refusing to leave the courtroom after being directed to do so, and
- Disobeying court orders such as subpoenas to attend court or to produce evidence.
The courts have made clear that a contempt charge should be used as a ‘last resort’ to deal with unruly persons within the courtroom, and all other possible options should be considered before resorting to a formal charge.
These options include:
- Giving a warning,
- Directing a person to leave the courtroom,
- Providing an opportunity to seek legal advice, such as advice relating to the privilege against self-incrimination when being asked questions on the witness stand,
- Considering whether the matter should be referred to the Attorney General for consideration of charging the person with engaging in disrespectful behaviour in court.
The courts have further found that rudeness or extreme discourtesy by lawyers does not amount to contempt.
In addition to this, the courts have made clear that, like police officers, magistrates and judges should be able to resist the sting of insults directed at them, as they are trained to be level-headed and to keep calm under stressful situations.
They should not, therefore, resort to a charge of contempt until and unless it is completely necessary.
What are the Penalties?
The maximum penalty for contempt of court is 28 days in prison and/or 20 penalty units, which is currently $2,200.
However, this is the maximum and the court can apply any of the following penalties for the offence:
What Does the Prosecution Have to Prove?
For a person to be found guilty of contempt of, the prosecution must establish each of the following ‘elements’ (or ingredients) of the offence beyond a reasonable doubt:
- The defendant engaged in conduct that had the tendency to interfere with or undermine the authority, performance or dignity of the court or those who participate in court proceedings, and
- The defendant intended to do the act.
The prosecution will fail if it cannot prove each of these elements to the required standard.
It is important to note, however, that the prosecution is not required to prove that the defendant intended to actually interfere with the administration of justice – just that he or she intended to do an act which, viewed by a reasonable person, had the tendency to do so.
This is known as an ‘objective test’ and means the defendant’s reasons behind doing the act are not determinative of the offence.
What are the Defences?
In addition to the requirement to prove each element of the offence, the prosecution must also disprove any of the following defences if properly raised:
- Duress, which is where you were threatened or coerced,
- Necessity, where the act was necessary to avert danger, and
- Self-defence, where you engaged in the act to defend yourself or another
It must disprove any such defences beyond all reasonable doubt.
Your Options in Court
Pleading Not Guilty
Before you can be found guilty of contempt of court, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:
- You engaged in conduct that had the tendency to interfere with or undermine the authority, performance, or dignity of the court or those who participate in court proceedings, and
- You intended to do that act.
There are a number of ways to defend contempt of court charges, including raising the fact that:
- The prosecution cannot prove you engaged in the alleged conduct,
- The prosecution cannot prove that conduct had the tendency to interfere with or undermine the authority, performance, or dignity of the court or those who participate in court proceedings,
- The prosecution cannot prove you intended to do the act, rather than did it by reason of recklessness or mistake, or
- You have a valid legal defence which the prosecution cannot disprove beyond a reasonable doubt.
If any of these matters prevail, you must be found not guilty of the offence.
A good lawyer will be able to make written submissions to the prosecution with a view to having the case against you withdrawn, or fight to have it thrown out of court if it proceeds to a defended hearing or trial.
Where the prosecution evidence is very strong, you may decide to plead guilty to the offence.
In that case, your lawyer may be able to negotiate the facts relied upon to reduce the seriousness of the offence.
Your lawyer can also guide you on obtaining materials that can be handed up to the court during your sentencing – including a letter of apology, character references and any documents from counsellors or health care professionals you have consulted.
These materials, together with persuasive verbal submissions by your lawyer in the courtroom, can help to ensure you receive the most lenient penalty that is possible in the circumstances.
By pleading guilty at an early stage, you will also be entitled to a ‘discount’ of up to 25% on your sentence – which can lead to a less serious type of penalty being imposed; for example, a section 10 dismissal or a conditional release order rather than a more serious penalty.
You will also be spared the time, expense and stress of a defended hearing or trial.
Section 199 of the District Court Act 1973 prescribes a number of procedural matters when it comes to contempt of court charges, and the Local Court adopts these matters through section 24 of the Local Court Act 2007.
The section prescribes the following procedure:
Where it is alleged, or appears to the Court on its own view, that a person is guilty of contempt of court committed in the face of the Court or in the hearing of the Court, the Court may:
– by oral order direct that the contemnor (who is the person charged with or found guilty of contempt) be brought before the Court, or
– issue a warrant for the arrest of the contemnor.
- Where the contemnor is brought before the Court, the Court shall:
– cause the contemnor to be informed orally of the contempt with which he or she is charged,
– require the contemnor to make his or her defence to the charge,
– after hearing the contemnor, determine the matter of the charge, and
– make an order for the punishment or discharge of the contemnor.
- The Court may, pending disposal of the charge:
– direct that the contemnor be kept in such custody as the Court may determine, or
– direct that the contemnor be released,
and such a direction is sufficient authority for the contemnor’s being kept in custody or released, as the case may be.
- The Court may give directions which can include that the contemnor give security (eg deposit money) for his or her appearance in-person to answer the charge.
- A warrant for the arrest or detention under this section of a contemnor shall be addressed to the Sheriff or a bailiff and may be issued under the hand of the Judge constituting the Court.
The procedures for contempt in the Supreme Court are contained in Part 55 of the Supreme Court Rules 1970.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Choose Sydney Criminal Lawyers®?
Going to court can be nerve-racking, but having a strong and compassionate legal team behind you can make the experience significantly easier to deal with. Here are 12 reasons to choose our multi-award winning legal team:
Proven Track Record of Exceptional Results
Sydney Criminal Lawyers® consistently achieves outcomes which are in the highest percentile of the Judicial Commission’s sentencing statistics for criminal cases.
Our legal team devises effective case-strategies and fights hard to have cases dropped entirely or charges downgraded – saving clients the time, expense and stress of a defended hearing or jury trial.
Where cases nevertheless proceed, our lawyers have an outstanding track record of winning defended Local Court hearings, and complex jury trials in the District and Supreme Courts.
We also consistently win appeals in the District and Supreme Courts (including the NSWCCA) after clients have received unsatisfactory results with other law firms in the lower courts.We are one of the few firms to achieve successful criminal law appeals in the High Court of Australia.
Where our clients wish to plead guilty, we frequently achieve ‘dismissals’ and ‘non convictions’ in cases where other lawyers have advised there is no chance of doing so.
Highest Level of Client Satisfaction
We have the best and most comprehensive client review record of any law firm in Australia.
Regular communication, accessibility and quality service are our team’s highest priorities.
We are committed to thoroughly explaining all steps involved in the criminal law process, providing regular updates throughout the proceedings, and making ourselves accessible and responsive.
We are passionate about providing an exceptional level of service to our clients, and we fight hard to achieve optimal results in the shortest period of time.
Australia’s Most Awarded Criminal Law Firm
We have received more awards and accolades than any other criminal law firm in Australia. Our team has been awarded “Criminal Defence Firm of the Year in Australia” in a number of prestigious and competitive awards programs for several years running.
The awards recognise our exceptional track record of results, our outstanding client service, the high level of satisfaction we achieve, the affordability of our services and our overall excellence.
We want our clients to know exactly how much their cases will cost from the very start. That’s why we were the first criminal law firm in Australia to publish ‘fixed fees’, back in 2004.
We offer fixed fees for most types of criminal cases and services.Our fixed fees apply to a range of Local Court cases such as drink driving, drug possession, fraud, common assault and AVOs, and also specific services such as prison visits, bail applications, appeals and defended hearings.
Unlike many other law firms, our fixed fees are published on our website – which ensures transparency and certainty.
Free First Appointment
For those who are going to court, we offer a free first conference of up to an hour with one of our Senior Criminal Defence Lawyers.
We also offer a free first conference to those who have received an unsatisfactory result after being represented in court by another law firm, or after representing themselves, and wish to appeal.
Specialist Lawyer Guarantee
We guarantee that only lawyers with substantial criminal defence experience will work on your case and appear for you in court.
This ensures our clients receive the highest quality representation from an experienced, specialist criminal lawyer.
All NSW Courts
From Bombala to Broken Hill, our lawyers appear in courts throughout New South Wales – and across Australia for Commonwealth cases.
And we offer fixed fees for most criminal and traffic law cases throughout the state.
Our entire firm is exclusively dedicated to criminal law – which makes us true specialists.
All of our lawyers have years of experience representing clients in criminal cases, and our principal has been certified by the Law Society of NSW as an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist since 2005.
An ‘Accredited Specialist’ is a lawyer who has practised for at least 5 years in a particular field of law (such as criminal law), has passed a rigorous assessment process conducted by the Law Society of NSW, and has been selected by the Specialist Accreditation Committee of the Law Society as an expert in the field.
Accredited Specialists are required to undertake more training each year than other lawyers and must be successful in having their accreditation renewed every year. Specialist Accreditation is the mark of a true specialist.
Our firm’s specialist experience ensures you receive the best possible result, whatever your criminal law case may be.
Results-Focused Law Firm
Our team is passionate about achieving results, and unlike many other law firms, our lawyers do not have monthly financial ‘budgets’ to meet.
The absence of budgets means our lawyers are entirely focused on achieving optimal results in the shortest space of time; whether by getting charges dropped or downgraded at an early stage or having cases ‘thrown out of court’.
Not having budgets also means our lawyers are not under pressure to engage in unscrupulous practices such as unnecessarily adjourning cases or ‘overcharging’ clients – which, sadly, is a common complaint against many other lawyers and law firms.
No budgets encourages regular consultation between lawyers within the firm – promoting an ‘open door’, team environment where lawyers bounce ideas off one another, formulate case strategy together and benefit from each other’s specialised experience, methods, techniques and insights.
The result is a firm which delivers optimal outcomes in the shortest time periods, at the least expense and stress to our clients.
Team of Lawyers Behind You
Our clients benefit from the pool of knowledge that only an extensive team of experienced criminal defence lawyers can provide.
Our lawyers regularly consult one another to stay ‘ahead of the pack’ in the ever-changing field of criminal law – constantly devising, refining and implementing specialised techniques which ensure our clients achieve the best possible outcomes.
A team approach is particularly important when it comes to serious criminal cases such as murder, commercial drug cases, serious and sexual assaults, large-scale fraud, robbery and other ‘indictable’ cases.
In such matters, clients reap the benefits of several lawyers devising and executing case strategies which maximise the chances of having cases dropped or downgraded at an early stage, or ‘thrown out of court’ – often saving clients a great deal of cost, time and anxiety.
Familiar with Magistrates and Judges
Each of our lawyers appears in court on a daily basis, and has done so for years. We have therefore been able to develop an understanding of, and rapport with, magistrates and judges in Sydney and indeed across the state.
Our team’s extensive experience before the courts ensures your case is tailored to the specific nuances of individual judicial officers, maximising the likelihood of a favourable result.
We have offices in locations across the Sydney Metropolitan Area and beyond, including:
- the Sydney CBD, on Castlereagh Street, directly opposite Downing Centre Court,
- Liverpool, directly opposite Liverpool Local Court, and
- Parramatta, near the justice precinct.
We offer free parking at our Sydney CBD and Liverpool locations, and all of our offices are close to train stations and bus terminals.
For those who are unable to attend our offices, we offer conferences by telephone, Skye and FaceTime anywhere around the world.
If you are going to court and wish to arrange a free first consultation, call our 24 hour hotline on (02) 9261 8881 or send us an email at email@example.com.