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Understanding contempt

By Justice Usman Bwala

Contempt is a legal word exists for thousands of years, traceable to the Mosaic Law. Whenever judiciary exists contempt must exist because contempt is a useful tool in the smooth functioning of the judiciary.

However, contempt is not used in courts only, there are other entities where contempt is applied. What is contempt?

“Contempt may be defined as disobedience or disrespect to a lawful authority of House of Parliament or Court” Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 3rd ed 380.

Contempt of court is anything done or writing published calculated to bring a court or judge into contempt to lower his dignity Agbachom vs RTAC 1992 5 NWLR (Pt 241) 366 where it was held:

Contempt of court is anything done or writing published calculated to bring a court or judge of the court into contempt or to lower his dignity.

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Contempt is also anything calculated to obstruct or interfere with the due administration of justice Agbachom vs RTAC supra. A contemnor is a person who commits contempt Chief Odu vs Chief Jolaosa 2005 All FWLR (Pt 262) 428.  Before an act or omission is deemed contempt it must be done with intention or intentionally Basil Okoma vs Sunday Udoh 2002 1 NWLR (Pt 748) 438.

Anything which scandalises or is calculated to bring the court into disrepute is contempt Mobil Oil vs S. T. Assan 1995 8 NWLR (Pt 412) 129. The question of motive is irrelevant in contempt cases R vs Poplar Borough Council (No.2) 1922 1 K.B 95.

The power to punish for contempt is inherent in all courts, courts of the first instance or appellate courts Unipetrol vs Edo State Board of Internal Revenue 2001 10 NWLR (Pt 720) 169. The power to punish for contempt is not for personal protection of the judge but that of the public. R vs Davidson 1821 4B and Ald 329. Contempt of court is used from a sense of duty or under pressure of public necessity. Mcleod vs St Aubyn 1899 A.C. 549.

Functions of Contempt

First and foremost, contempt preserves dignity and respect of courts Chapman vs Honig 1963 2 Q.B 502 at 518 “Those pages show that for the purpose of deciding whether a contempt of court has been committed in a case of this kind, the determining factor is no harm done to the individual but harm done to the future administration of justice.”

Secondly, contempt ensures a fair trial by ensuring the dignity of court and reputation as an institution Jennison vs Baker 1972 1 All ELR 997 at 1001 “The power exists to ensure that justice shall be done. And solely to this end, it prohibits acts and words tending to obstruct the administration of justice.”

In Chief Odu vs Chief Jolaoso 2005 All FWLR (Pt 262) 428 it was opined by the court as “By its nature, punishment for contempt to punish an offender for an act that somehow affects the dignity of the court in the administration of justice.” All courts have an innate power to punish for contempt Chief Odu vs Chief Jolaoso supra where it was held as “it is an inherent power in that it is innate to the court once it is established.”

Thirdly, contempt exists as a useful tool in the administration of justice. Fame Publications vs Encomium Ventures2000 8 NWLR (Pt 667) 105 as: “It must be remembered that the principle enshrined in the law of contempt are to uphold and ensure the effective administration of justice.”

Any act of disobedience to court order is checked by contempt Russell vs East Anglia Railway 1850 20 Ch 257 where it was held “it is an established rule that is not open to a party to question any or process of the court by disobedience and it is not inconsistent with the general rule that the court in administrating punishment for disobedience to an order attendant to all facts of the case…”

The fourth use is contempt checks undue interference in the administration of justice.  It was clearly opined in Hermone vs Smith 1887 15 Ch.D 449 at 455 as follows: “The object of the disciple enforced by the court in case of contempt of court is not to vindicate the dignity of the court or the person of the judge, but to prevent undue interference with the administration of justice.”

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Last but not the least contempt maintains order and decorum in a court, thus any person who misbehaves in a court can be checkmate by the court. However, it is not every disobedience to the court that will amount to contempt Awosanyo vs Board of Custom L.C.N 117 at 127.

Types of Contempt

There are various types of contempt. It was thus held in Rt. Hon. Azikwe vs FEDECO LCN (Law of Contempt in Nigeria by Gani Fawehinmi LCN) 285 at 287 that there are 2 types of contempt as follows:

Contempt could either be in the face of the court (infacie curiae) or outside the court (exfacie curiae).

However, in St James Evening Post Case 1942 Atk 469 it was held per His Lordship Hardwicke L.J. that there are 3 types of contempt as follows: There are three different sorts of contempt. One kind of contempt is scandalising the court itself. There may be likewise contempt of this court, in abusing parties who are concerned in the cause, there may be also a contempt of this court, in prejudicing mankind against another person before their cause is heard.

Historically contempt is classified as criminal contempt or civil contempt Fawehinmi vs A.G.F. 1990 5 NWLR (Pt 148) 42 at 83 as follows: Traditionally contempt is classified into either:

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  1. a) criminal contempt
  2. b) civil contempt

Whether contempt is infacie curiae, exfacie curiae, criminal contempt or civil contempt, they all share one characteristic; they involve interference in the due administration of justice A.G.vs Laveller Magazine Ltd 1979 A.C. 440 at 449 as follows: They all share common characteristics; they involve interference with due administration of justice either in a particular case or more generally as a continued process.

Contempt in Facie Curiae

It is a contempt committed inside a court hall or precincts of a court in Re Olu Onagoruwa LCN 270 where it was held as follows:

The common characteristics of contempt infacie curiae is that the act of contempt must take place near the courtroom or in the precincts.

Contempt in facie curiae has no closed category it is far and wide Rt. Hon. Azikwe vs FEDECO supra. Contempt infacie curiae has no close category and examples of such instances are many.

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