Contempt of Court Bill passes third reading

A Bill that consolidates and modernises the rules relating to contempt of court has passed its third reading, Minister of Justice, Andrew Little says.

Contempt of court includes disruptive behaviour in court, harmful publicity that interferes with fair trial rights, and untrue and damaging allegations aimed at the judiciary.

“It is important the law is clear and accessible, and this Bill achieves that,” says Andrew Little.

“Contempt of court undermines the integrity of the court system. The courts need powers to respond effectively to threats to the effective administration of justice,” says Andrew Little.

Contempt laws have become increasingly antiquated, and needed to be modernised to fit the digital age.

Amongst its provisions the new legislation clarifies that jurors must not turn to the internet to look things up or research information relevant to the trial before them. Fair trial rights mean that jurors must only consider the evidence they have heard in the court room. 

“Even though the Bill includes new rules to fine jurors who seek out their own information, the Government’s focus is on better education and instructions for jurors,” says Andrew Little.

 “The Bill clarifies the scope of the offence previously known as ‘scandalising the court’ by confirming that it applies only when someone makes a statement that is factually incorrect, known to be incorrect and intended to undermine public confidence in the judiciary. Any prosecution of this offence requires the approval of the Solicitor General.”

The case of Solicitor-General v. Smith (2004) illustrated the need for this provision in the Bill. In this case, the defendant made remarks about a court which the High Court said were “intemperate, derogatory and unfair.”[1]The High Court said this sort of provision was needed “to protect the Court, not the dignity of its Judges. It guards the institution, not the individuals.”[2]

“This Bill, which started life under the hand of Hon Chris Finlayson, provides much needed clarity and will be good for the administration of justice and the rule of law in New Zealand,” Andrew Little says.

[1] Solicitor-General v Smith [2004] 2 NZLR 540 (HC) at [94].
[2] ibid, at [85].