Thursday, 17 January 2019

Contempt of court

                       By C.J. OKOYE Esq.

Contempt is defined as the attitude or feelings of a person towards another person or thing that he considers worthless or despicable.  In FRANKLIN ATEKE V. ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE FEDERATION & ANOR. (SUPRA), Idigbe, JSC said in defining contempt of Court:

“It is indeed difficult to give exact definition of contempt of Court and this is so because it is so manifold in its aspects but generally it may be described as any conduct which tends to bring into disrespect, scorn, or disrepute to the law or which tends to interfere with and or prejudice litigants and or witnesses in the course of litigation.”

See also AWOBOKUN V. ADEYEMI (1968) NMLR 289, particularly at page 294.  In this case, it was held that every private communication with a judge to influence the outcome of a case, whether or not it is accompanied by bribe, is contempt of Court. 

Contempt extends to cover unprintable remarks made to the opposite lawyer within the premises of the Court.  But in OKODUWA V. THE STATE (1988), it was held that fair comment by a lawyer does not amount to contempt.


“The purpose of the discipline enforced by the Courts in the case of contempt is the need to project the dignity of the Court to the person of the Judge and to prevent undue interference with the administration of Justice.  The importance of this is that of all places where law and order must be maintained, it is in the Courts the cause of justice must not be deflected or interfered with.”


There are two types of contempt:

10. Criminal and
11. Non-Criminal (Civil) Contempt.

This consists of words or acts which obstruct or tend to obstruct or interfere with the administration of justice.  For instance, to call a judge a liar or to allege that he is partial or to say in the course of the judgment “This is most unjust” etc is criminal contempt.


There are two types of criminal contempt:

1. In facie curia (direct criminal and contempt), and
2. Ex facie curia (indirect criminal contempt).

This is contempt in the face of the Court.  Here, the judge has the power to punish the contemnor instantly or summarily. Lord Denning, in his book “ Due Process of Law” at page 6 referred to a scenario where a woman counsel flew books at him and Lord Diplock but instead of being charged for contempt of Court, they were lenient with her.

Here, the contempt is outside the face of the Court, that is, in the absence of the judge.  The concerned Judge cannot punish instantly. 

The case has to be referred to another judge and the normal criminal procedure has to be followed.  See RE: DR. OLU ONAGORUWA (UNREPORTED) FCA/E/11779 of 5th February 1980.

This is contempt in procedure consisting of the disobedience to the Judge’s orders and other processes of Court and may involve personal injury.  For instance, where a person is asked not to trespass on a property, if he does so, it is disobedience to the Court’s order and the injury is done to the Court’s integrity and private injury to the person concerned.  See the following cases:

1. AFE BABALOLA V. FEDECO & ANOR (UNREPORTED) SUIT NO. AK/MA/77 of 21st February 1978.
2. OBIEKWE ANIWETA V. THE STATE FSA/E/47/78 delivered on 16/8/78
3. AWOKUBKUN V. ADEYEMI (1968) NMLR 289, particularly at page 294.

It is not possible to particularise the act which can and cannot constitute contempt.  See AGBACHOM V. STATE (1970) 1 ALL NLR 69. 
It is not every act of disCourtesy to the Court that amounts to contempt.  See UZUORA V. R. 13 WACA 313. 

Also a breach by counsel of his duty to his client does not necessarily amount to contempt.  For example, if he fails to appear in Court on a hearing day. 

Here are some of the acts that amount to contempt:

1. Language or behaviour which is outrageous or scandalous or which is deliberately insulting to the Court, for example, calling the Judge a liar.
2. Publication in a newspaper or article containing personal abuse of a Judge with reference to his conduct as such.  See R. V. JACKSON 6 NLR 46.
3. Allegation of partiality made against the judge.
4. An article or publication in a newspaper that scandalises or is calculated to bring the Court into disrepute.  See ANIWETA V. STATE (UNREPORTED) F.S.C./E/47/78.
5. Every private communication to a Judge on a matter before him, whether or not accompanied by the offer of a bribe, amounts to contempt. 

In AWOBOKUN V. ADEYEMI (SUPRA), the contemnor phoned the judge and the following morning, the judge asked her to show cause why she should not be committed for contempt.  The Judge committed her for contempt and she appealed.  She got away with the contempt on appeal because the judge adopted a wrong procedure.

Note that there is difference between No. 1 and No. 3.  No. 1 could be an act or conduct.  No. 1 includes No. 3 but No. 3 cannot include No. 1.  No. 3 specifically mentioned partiality.

There is also a difference between No. 2 and No. 4.  No. 2 talks of publication in a newspaper or article containing personal abuse of a Judge in reference to his conduct on a particular matter while No. 4 is just talking of aspersions against the judge.

The fifth one is on communication; it can be oral or written communication.

Contempt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt.  This is because it is criminal in character and the rule applies both in civil and criminal contempt. 

In AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY AND TELECOMMUNICATION SYSTEM NIGERIAN LTD. V. EUGENE PETERSON & ANOR. (UNREPORTED) Suit No. FRC/L/1077 of 27th October 1978, the Court held that a civil contempt arising from a breach of an order of injunction must nonetheless be proved beyond all reasonable doubt as in a criminal proceeding.

The Court can deal summarily with cases of contempt in the face of the Court and by the very judicial officer in whose presence the offence was committed but in cases of contempt not committed in the face of the Court, the Court has two options:

1. There may be cases where the offence could be dealt with summarily but it must be in accordance with the cardinal principles of fair hearing and the case must be one in which the facts surrounding the alleged contempt are so notorious as to be virtually incontestable.

2. The proper procedure is the whole process of apprehension or arrest, charge, prosecution etc.  In BOYO V. ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MIDWESTERN STATE (1971) 1 ALL NLR 342, the Supreme Court advised that judges must be very careful in handling contempt cases because of the peculiar nature of the offence.  In a contempt case, the contemnor is usually reduced to such a state of humility in fear of more stern consequences that he is unable or willing to defend himself as he might otherwise have done.  It is for this reason that the standard of proof required in contempt cases is ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt.

It should be noted that the first position is hardly used and once used, the Judge is put under a microscopic guide to ensure he follows the right process.  In DEDUWA & ORS. V. THE STATE (1975) 1 ALL NLR, one of the counsel read a letter to the judge that his case be transferred from the Court to another Court.  The contemnors were ordered to choose between the Witness Box and the Dock.  They chose the Witness Box.  There, they were cross-examined before conviction. 

On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the inherent jurisdiction of a Court of record is to punish for contempt and not to try the contemnor for the purpose of finding the contemnor guilty.  The correct procedure is for the contemnor to be put in the dock and punished.

The High Court has inherent jurisdiction to punish criminal contempt summarily but the power should be exercised with the greatest caution. 

The inherent power to fine and imprison for contempt is not retained for the personal aggrandisement of a judge or whoever mans the Court. 

The powers are created, maintained, and retained for the purpose of preserving the dignity or honour of the Courts.  See Section 133 of the Criminal Code. 

Section 133(4) of the Criminal Code provides thus:

“Any person who while a judicial proceeding is pending makes use of any speech or writing misrepresenting such proceedings or capable of prejudicing any person in favour of or against any party to such proceedings or calculated to lower the authority of any person before whom such proceedings is being heard or taken.”

Also see Section 6 of the Criminal Code and it provides:

“Nothing in this law or in the Code shall affect the authority of the Courts of record to punish a person summarily for the offence commonly known as contempt of Courts.”

What is the position of the Court? 
Can the Magistrate Court, Customary Court and Area Courts punish summarily for contempt?

What is the statutory position?  Also support with cases.

The Courts will pardon a contemnor whose conduct is unintentional and who purges his contempt by a sincere apology and credible explanation.  Contempt committed in Under Section 133 of the Criminal Code carries a maximum sentence of three months.  See OKOMA V. UDOH (2002) 1 NWLR (PT. 748) 438. 

For civil contempt, the punishment permissible by law is six months.  See AFE BABALOLA V. FEDECO (SUPRA). 

The Court also has the power to order that a contemnor be kept in custody till he purges himself of the contempt.  See ATEKE’s case. (SUPRA)

See also MAJARO V. FASASI (1986) 5 NWLR (PT. 40) 243.

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