The word contempt generally means to have disdain for something or someone. In a legal sense, the concept of contempt covers not only holding the court up to disdain, but also the disobedience of a court order or an act which can impede the administration of justice. Contempt can be civil or criminal; civil contempt involves an action against a person arising out of a civil case, such as non-payment of child support; criminal contempt is considered an offense against society, such as interfering with court proceedings or denigrating the dignity of the court.
In common law, the judge is considered a representative of the law, and disrespect shown to him constitutes disrespect for the law. It is this interpretation which authorizes a charge of criminal contempt to anyone who holds a court or legislative body up to ridicule. In the US, contempt charges can be brought against anyone who refuses to obey a court order, who shouts or is disruptive inside the courtroom, who holds a protest outside the courtroom which is sufficiently disruptive to the court matters inside, or who refuses to answer questions directed to him by the judge. Judges are granted great latitude in determining whether or not contempt charges are justified, but higher courts have ruled that such charges should only be levied if there is an apparent danger of justice being thwarted.
Criminal contempt can be direct or indirect. Direct contempt is performed in the presence of the judge, such as when an attorney or witness yells at the judge or refuses to deliver evidence for which a subpoena has been issued. Indirect contempt occurs outside the presence of a judge and includes such things as improperly approaching a juror to discuss the case, threatening or attempting to bribe a juror or prosecutor, or interfering with a process server. US courts have ruled that three elements must exist to justify a charge of criminal contempt. The court must have issued a clear, reasonable and specific order; the contemnor, or person charged with contempt, must have violated that order; and the violation must have been willful, or intentional.
A person charged with criminal contempt has the same right to a trial as any other person charged with a crime. One of the criticisms of contempt hearings in the US is that the same judge who makes the charge often conducts the hearing and passes sentence. Another concern is that a sentence such as confinement in jail can be imposed immediately before a hearing can take place, and that in some cases the sentence can be indefinite as long as the contemnor refuses to comply with the order. An example of this is when a reporter refuses to reveal his sources to the court. Contempt charges against reporters are rare in the US, however, in deference to the Constitutional protections of the press.
The Contempt of Court Act of 1981 clarified the definition and application of contempt charges in the UK. The two classifications of contempt are those acts committed “in the face of the court” and those which are constructive or indirect, also called strict liability contempt. An in the face act would include disruptive behavior in court, disobedience of a court order, or a breach of a court proceeding. Strict liability contempt is more commonly used against the press for publishing a potentially prejudicial article regarding an open case. The Act also includes unauthorized recording of court proceedings and photographing or sketching a justice or witness under the definition of criminal contempt.
Australian laws regarding criminal contempt parallel those of the UK, and also strictly control what the press can publish regarding any open case. In both countries, a case is considered open from the time a warrant is issued or an arrest is made until the conclusion of the legal process. Reporters may publish descriptions of the proceedings, but must not disclose any background material about the defendant until a verdict has been reached, including any prior criminal convictions. In cases where a judge’s verdict causes public outrage, a reporter may report the facts and present an argument against the verdict, but cannot criticize the judge or imply that he is unqualified without risking a charge of criminal contempt.