Contempt of court

Current project status

  • Initiation: Could include discussing scope and terms of reference with lead Government Department
  • Pre-consultation: Could include approaching interest groups and specialists, producing scoping and issues papers, finalising terms of project
  • Consultation: Likely to include consultation events and paper, making provisional proposals for comment
  • Policy development: Will include analysis of consultation responses. Could include further issues papers and consultation on draft Bill
  • Reported: Usually recommendations for law reform but can be advice to government, scoping report or other recommendations

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.

Documents

Terms of reference

The problem

“Contempt of court” refers to a wide variety of conduct that 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 project

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.

Next steps

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

Contact

By email to contempt@lawcommission.gov.uk or by phone 02033 340200.

Project details

Area of law

Criminal law

Commissioner

Professor Penney Lewis