Friday Law Report: County court's contempt jurisdiction

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The Independent Culture
20 November 1998

Manchester City Council v McCann

Court of Appeal (Lord Woolf, Master of the Rolls, Lord Justice Henry and Lord Justice Clarke) 16 November 1998

THE JURISDICTION of a county court judge under section 118 of the County Courts Act 1984 to commit for contempt of court a person who insults the judge, a juror, a witness or an officer of the court in going to or returning from the court is not restricted to a contempt committed in the face of the court, and the word "insults" in the section includes "threatens".

The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal of Manchester City Council against the refusal of its application to commit the respondent for contempt of court, and remitted the matter to the county court.

The council had taken possession proceedings against the respondent in the county court because he and his wife had been unwilling or unable to control their children, who had run wild on the council estate where they lived, committing serious acts of hooliganism and vandalism.

After the hearing, a close neighbour of the respondent who had given evidence against him had been driven home by a council official. As the witness was walking from the car to his house, the respondent had shouted to him: "I'll fucking have you, you bastard." That threat had caused the witness to fear for his family's safety.

The council applied to the judge to commit the respondent for contempt of court under section 118 of the County Courts Act 1984. Section 118 gave a county court judge the power to commit for contempt: "(1) If any person - (a) insults the judge of a county court, or any juror or witness, or any officer of the court during his attendance in court, or in going to or returning from the court; or (b) wilfully interrupts the proceedings of a county court or otherwise misbehaves in court . . ."

The judge, whilst accepting that the words of the statute "taken literally" would cover the witness's journey home from the court, concluded that the jurisdiction under s 118 required that the contempt should be "in the face of the court", and that the contempt in the present case had not been. The council appealed.

Michael Lemmy (Manchester City Council) for the appellant; Nigel Bird (Glaisyers, Manchester) for the respondent.

Lord Woolf MR handed down the judgment of the court prepared by Lord Justice Henry. Whether the court had jurisdiction to deal with the conduct complained of depended entirely on the correct construction of section 118 of the County Courts Act 1984.

It was clear from the wording of the section and from the authorities that if an offence was committed "in going to or returning from the court" it did not have to be committed in the face of the court in order for the county court judge or district judge to have jurisdiction.

However a further point, ie whether "insults" in section 118 included "threatens", had arisen. Although the statute was penal, the correct construction of the section was purposive, and on such a construction the word "insults" did include "threatens". In reaching that conclusion, the court had the misfortune to differ from the decision in R v Havant Justices, ex p Palmer [1985] 149 JPR 609, in which the court had held that "insults" in section 12(1)(a) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 did not have that wider meaning.

The county courts tried very important cases these days, and in their small claims jurisdiction dealt with litigants in person in what remained a stressful situation, no matter how relaxed or informal it might be sought to be made. At both ends of the legal spectrum the court needed the authority to deal summarily and immediately with threats to the proper conduct of its proceedings.

If the court could deal with "insults" but not "threats" it would not be able to give immediate protection to those who needed it most. If the county court could not deal with threats in the face of the court unless they happened to be interruptions or misbehaviour in court, its authority was much diminished, which would not be in the public interest.