By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw
The ancient charge of ‘contempt in the face of the court’ is alive and well, as I have found in the research for the next edition of our text The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (with Mark Polden).
Almost any behaviour that disrupts the courtroom can be considered a ‘contempt in the face of the court’ – a charge directed at behaviour in the actual courtroom that interferes with the administration of justice. The Australian Law Reform Commission (1987: 3) defined ‘contempt in the face of the court’ as:
Improper behaviour in court. Anything done to interrupt significantly the smooth and appropriately dignified hearing of a case in a courtroom risks being treated as contempt and punished accordingly.
Two recent examples have included:
- The Indigenous laughing case (2017). An Aboriginal land rights activist was jailed for two hours after defying a Gympie magistrate by laughing at him in the courtroom. Gary Tomlinson (also known as “Wit-boooka”) had challenged the authority of the court to hear public nuisance and trespass offences related to a protest at Gympie Regional Council.
- NT homeless ‘genius’ case (2017). A homeless man, self-described genius and would-be mayoral candidate who continuously insulted court officers interrupted the judge, and disrobed in court was twice jailed for contempt in the face of the court in 2016 and 2017. His appeals failed against his total of five months’ contempt sentence and alleged bias by the judge.
Given that both cases involved citizens who appeared outside of the mainstream of society, it is worth monitoring future cases to assess whether the charge is being disproportionately used against vulnerable, alienated, outspoken or disenfranchised individuals.
Journalists and bloggers are warned to show respect in the courtroom. This extends beyond paying attention to the proceedings, remaining clothed and avoiding throwing projectiles at the magistrate.
Indigenous laughing case, 2017. Gorrie, A. (18 December 2017). UPDATE: Gympie activist serves two hours for contempt. Gympie Times <https://www.gympietimes.com.au/news/update-gympie-activist-serves-two-hours-for-contem/3293365/>
NT homeless ‘genius’ case (2017). Jenkins v Whittington  NTSC 65. < https://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/cases/nt/NTSC/2017/65.html>
© Mark Pearson 2018
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.