Opinion

Anyenini LegalLight: Why contempt of court?

I have changed the name of my five minutes segment from Samson’s Take to ANYENINI LegalLight. I introduced it three years ago to, purposefully, fill the time my guests take to get ready to join the show especially as they would often be a few minutes late. The response has been enormous and I commit to continue sharing the bits of law I know. Knowledge empowers.

Knowledge of the law super empowers us to conduct our everyday business in confidence and to avoid trouble. Today, let’s learn about that animal contempt. Hopefully, this helps you make meaning of the ongoing contempt case against Kennedy Agyapong. Contempt of court essentially entails willfully disobeying, disrespecting, scandalising the court, or engaging in acts to prejudice or interfere with the administration of justice.

We no longer live in the jungle of survival of the strongest. So imagine you put your life’s savings into a land and the court-ordered someone, unlawfully, taking it away from you to stop developing it and he decided not to comply. It is the court’s power to throw him into jail for contempt that will force him to stay off. The court will lose the power to resolve disputes in a civilized manner if people won’t be punished for scandalising it or disrupting a court session and hurling insults at a judge because they disagree with him.

The knowledge that even the lower courts could throw you into prison for six months and/or exact a fine of GHC 600 for your failure to honour a summons, refusing to answer questions or to produce a document forces the right conduct to enable the courts to administer justice. Contempt of court is therefore in our individual private and collective interest. It is a coercive power of the State that keeps those who do not want to live by the rules of civility in check. It gives expression to the equality before the law mantra.

Acts of contempt that do not happen in the face of a judge but outside the courtroom are punished by a judge other than the one who is directly personally affected. In an ongoing civil case, the law directs that a litigant may bring the act of contempt to the attention of the court by initiating the process or the court can, on its own, initiate it. The infamous election petition and ‘Montie’ three contemnors were punished for scandalizing the court, insulting and threatening judges.

That is pure criminal contempt, and insulting judges may be punished as an offence attracting a jail term of up to three years. The best procedure that respects the fundamental principles of giving an accused person the opportunity to defend himself and not allowing a judge to act as complainant, prosecutor and judge, is for the Attorney-General to initiate the process before a different judge.

My respect for Atta Akyea hit the roof when he insisted on this procedure as established in the Liberty Press case even at the peril of his client going to jail. He told the Supreme Court that place was not a “mercy chamber” to require people to come begging for mercy, but a place for justice. Ace Ankomah, for many years, called for the law regulating contempt.

India passed a Contempt of Court Act in 1971; the UK did so in 1981. Can we do this now to better regulate this all-important-justice-holding-power of the State, and to avoid abuse and the confusion generated whenever it catches public figures?

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Samson Lardy ANYENINI
October 17, 2020