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Contempt Of Court (WA)

Contempt of court is an act which has a tendency to interfere with or undermine the authority of the court. It is considered a serious offence and punished accordingly.  Examples of contempt of court include improper behaviour in court, attempting to influence participants in a case, failing to comply with a court order, or publishing material which prejudices a fair trial or undermines public confidence in the court system.

The offence is found in several pieces of legislation in Western Australia.

Magistrates Court

Section 15 of the Magistrates Court Act 2004 sets out that a person is guilty of contempt if they wilfully:

  • interrupt proceedings;
  • misbehave in court;
  • insult a person of the court;
  • insult or obstruct a person entering or leaving the court.

A person will also be guilty of contempt if they:

  • refuse to take an oath or affirmation when required;
  • refuse to give evidence when required;
  • do not comply with a lawful direction of the court;
  • do not attend court as required by a summons;
  • do not produce a document when ordered by the court;
  • refuse to comply with a court order to do an act or to stop doing an act.

The court has several options to deal with a person who has committed a contempt. These include:

  • ordering the arrest of the person, either orally or via a warrant, so they can be be brought before the court to answer the charge;
  • issuing a summons for the person to appear in court to answer the charge;
  • deal with the person without a formal charge.

A person found guilty of contempt is liable to a maximum penalty of a $12,000 fine, imprisonment for 12 months, or both. If the person does not pay the fine immediately, the court can order that the person be jailed until the fine is paid or for 12 months, whichever is the shorter period. If a person apologises to the court for the contempt, the court can amend or cancel the punishment, including ordering a refund of all or some of a fine paid.

District Court

Section 63 of the District Court of Western Australia Act 1969 sets out that a person is guilty of contempt if they:

  • wilfully insult a judge or court officer during proceedings or when the judge is entering or leaving the court;
  • wilfully interrupt court proceedings;
  • refuse to appear or to produce documents when required by a summons;
  • refuse to give evidence, be sworn in, or answer questions when required;
  • wilfully be evasive as a witness;
  • misbehave in the courtroom.

The judge can order the arrest of the person and jail them for up to 5 years, or fine them up to $50,000. If the person does not pay the fine immediately, the court can order that the person be jailed until the fine is paid or for 5 years, whichever is the shorter period.

Supreme Court

The Rules of the Supreme Court 1971 provide examples of when contempt is committed in the Supreme Court. These examples include making a false statement when questioned, and failing to comply with a subpoena to appear to give evidence or to produce documents.

If the court believes a person is guilty of contempt, a judge can orally direct the person be brought before the court or issue a warrant for the person’s arrest.

At the hearing for contempt, the court must:

  • inform the person of the contempt charge; and
  • allow the person to defend the charge; and
  • decide the matter in any way it considers appropriate; and
  • order the person be punished or discharged.

If the person has committed a contempt, the court can order imprisonment, issue a fine, or both. If the court imposes a fine, the person can be held in prison until the fine is paid. If the respondent is a corporation, the court can seize corporation property, issue a fine, or both.

Family Court

Section 234 of the Family Court Act 1997 allows this court to punish a person for a contempt of court that does not constitute contravention of an order, or that constitutes contravention of an order that “involves a flagrant challenge to the authority of the court”. An example of the latter is when a parent substantially breaches a parenting order without a valid reason, such as by denying the other parent time with a child on multiple occasions, or not returning the child to the parent with whom they live.

A person can also be found guilty of contempt by application by another person. An application should be made only if the behaviour is serious enough to warrant a criminal charge. An enforcement application may be a more suitable way to have a person comply with a court order.

A person can be punished by a prison term, or a fine or both. A corporation can be punished by seizure of property, or a fine, or both. The court has the power to  suspend the punishment or accept security for good behaviour. It also has the power to reinstate arrangements from a previous order, vary an existing order and order compensation to a parent for lost contact time.

For advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

Sally Crosswell

This article was written by Sally Crosswell

Sally Crosswell has a Bachelor of Laws (Hons), a Bachelor of Communication and a Master of International and Community Development. She also completed a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice at the College of Law. A former journalist, Sally has a keen interest in human rights law.

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