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Contempt of Court under Nigerian law

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MEANING OF CONTEMPT OF COURT

The word “contempt” means, the attitude or feeling of a person towards a person or thing that he considers worthless or despicable scorn; willful disregard of, or disrespect for the authority of a court of law or legislative body (See Collins English Dictionary).

In the case of court, contempt of court may refer to disrespectful behavior shown by anyone towards court of law, which tends to undermine the authority of court or it’s decisions.

In Theophilus Adetola Awobokun & anor v Toun Adeyemi(1968)NMLR.Page 286, the court defined contempt of court as “ action or inaction amounting to an interference with or obstruction or having a tendency to interfere with or obstruct due administration of justice.

It is difficult to define what a court may regard as contempt of contempt. In the case of  Franklin O Atake V Attorney General Of The Federation & Anor (1982)11 S.C At Page 175, Idigbe JSC noted

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it is indeed difficult to give an exact definition of contempt of court, because  it is so manifold in aspects. But generally, it may be ascribed  as any conduct  which tends to bring into disrespect, scorn, or disreputes to the authority and administration of the law or which tends to interfere with and or prejudice litigants and/or their  witnesses in the course of litigation.”

Therefore, it is not every act of discourtesy to the court by counsel or anyone that may amount to contempt.

Language or behavior which is outrageous or scandalous or which deliberately insults the court, comments whether oral or written scandalizing the court is contemptuous.

Publication in a newspaper or article containing scurrilous personal abuse of a judge with reference to his conduct as a judge  in a judicial proceeding which has terminated, is a contempt of court.

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Every publication in a newspaper misrepresenting proceedings of a court is contempt under section 133(4) of the criminal code.

Every private communication to a judge for the purpose of influencing his decision upon a pending matter and whether or not accompanied by the offer of a bribe or by personal abuse is a contempt of court as it tends to interfere with the cause of justice.

CLASSIFICATION OF CONTEMPT

Contempt of Court can be classified into two: criminal contempt and civil contempt.

Criminal contempt

What amount to criminal contempt is succinctly defined by Section 133 of the criminal code as follows:

Any person who within the premises in which any judicial proceeding is being heard or taken, or within the precincts of the same, shows disrespects, in speech or manner, to or with references to such proceeding, or any person before whom such proceeding is being heard or take, is guilty of an offense known as contempt of court”.

Therefore, while you are in court, you may need to guide or weave your words and guide as well your emotions. This is because sometimes, things may not go your way and judges may take decisions you may not like.

Your lawyer would have told you that you have the option of appealing against every unfavorable decision reached against you in court.

But if you start yelling at the judge or if you start alleging that the judge is bias, that a judge is a pathological liar or that he is unjust in his remark, you may be committed to prison for contempt of court.

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Civil contempt

You may also be cited in court for civil contempt when you willfully disregard orders made by a court. You may also be cited for civil contempt when you disobey the court’s judgement.

In Nigeria, you will be served with Form 48, which is notice of the consequence of disobedience to court orders. If you still persist in flattering the order of the court, you will be served with form 49, which requires you to show cause why you shouldn’t be committed to prison.

But there are two types of contempt of court: Contempt in facie curie and Contempt ex-facie curie.

As noted by Sabilaw,Contempt whether criminal or civil can either be contempt in facie curiae or contempt ex-facie curiae. Contempt in facie curiae is contempt made in the face of the court. But contempt ex facie curie is contempt made outside the court.

What this means is that if those scandalous words are made against the judge in his presence in court, you may be cited for contempt in facie curiae.

But where the inappropriate behavior or spoken words happened outside the face of the court, it is contempt ex-facie curiae. 

The procedure after contempt of court in has been committed is simple       

a.Where the contempt is made in the face of the court.

The judge or whoever it is sitting in judicial capacity, may order the contemnor to be put to dock. The contemnor is then tried summarily by the judge before whom the contempt was committed.

At the dock, the contemnor would be asked to show cause why he shouldn’t be committed to prison for contempt.The contemnor would be given the opportunity to justify his action or words or to apologize and be pardoned accordingly.

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The contemnor is not made to enter the witness box. This is because doing so would violate section 36(11) of the constitution which forbids an accused person from being compelled to give evidence.

The judge may also order the arrest and detention of the contemnor. If he does, a charge will be drafted against the contemnor, consequent upon which the contemnor will be arraigned and charged.

b. Where the contempt is made outside the court

The contemnor would be arrested or summoned to court by the issuance of form 48-Notice of the consequence of disobedience to a court order.

The whole procedure for contempt made outside the face of the court is governed by Section 72 of the Sheriff and Civil Process Act, LFN 2004, and Order 9 Rule 13 of the Judgement Enforcement Rule

The punishment for contempt of court is not so severe.

The punishment for contempt is not so severe as that of capital offences like rape, armed robbery, treason, or murder.

Under section 133 of the criminal code, the judge may sentence you to imprisonment for a maximum of 3 months, and for contempt under the Halsbury laws, a maximum of 6 months imprisonment for civil contempt.  See the case of Okoma V Udoh(2002) 1NWLR (pt.748) 438.

 

Anyone may be punished for contempt of court.

No one is immune from contempt of court. A lawyer may be cited for contempt.  Litigants may also be tried for contempt.

Every act of disobedience to the order of court, neglect or disdainful treatment, or malicious words spoken against the person in judicial capacity by anyone is treated as contempt.

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