New Law Commission project to review the law on contempt of court

The Law Commission of England and Wales has been asked by the Government to review the law on contempt of court and consider reform to improve its effectiveness, consistency, and coherence.

“Contempt of court” refers to a wide variety of conduct by those involved in legal proceedings, which may impede or interfere with a court case or the administration of justice.

Examples include deliberately breaching a court order, refusing to answer the court’s questions if called as a witness, or releasing photographs or publicly commenting on developments in court when reporting restrictions are in place.

The development of the law of contempt has been unsystematic, resulting in a regime that is often disordered and unclear. Problems arise from the confusing distinction between civil and criminal contempt of court, the multiple ways in which contempt can be committed, and the overlap between the law of contempt and criminal offences relating to the administration of justice, such as perverting the course of justice.

There are also growing concerns about the impact of social media and technological advancements on the administration of justice.

A clearer set of laws and rules would help to ensure that the law of contempt operates as a principled, comprehensible, and fair regime for all parties involved.

The Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General’s Office have asked the Law Commission to review the law on both criminal and civil contempt and in particular to consider:

  • codification and simplification of the law of contempt, and the extent to which certain contempts should be defined as criminal offences;
  • the responsibility for the adjudication, investigation and prosecution of contempts, as well as courts’ and tribunals’ powers and protections relating to contempt proceedings;
  • the effectiveness of the current provisions on committing contempt by publishing information on court proceedings, including consideration of the right to freedom of expression protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights;
  • the appropriateness of penalties for contempt of court; and
  • whether problems might arise from procedure in contempt of court proceedings, and whether there is scope for improving the relevant procedural rules.

 

Commenting on the launch of the contempt of court project, Professor Penney Lewis, the Law Commissioner for Criminal Law, said:

“The law on contempt of court is essential to preventing interference in the administration of justice and upholding the rule of law, but the many laws governing it are outdated, unclear and at times in conflict.

“Our review will examine how the law of contempt can be simplified and modernised, to create a regime that responds fairly and proportionately to those who undermine the legal process.”

 

Nicholas Paines QC, the Law Commissioner for Public Law and Law in Wales, said:

“There must be a mechanism in law to ensure that courts – from the most senior courts to tribunals – are able to control their proceedings and enforce timely compliance with their orders. This review will consider whether there are appropriate powers to meet this objective.”

 

Next steps

The Commission aims to publish a consultation paper at the end of 2022, inviting views on our provisional proposals for reform.