Irish Supreme Court clarifies contempt of court and right to a fair trial

The Irish Supreme Court has clarified the law on how contempt and distributive behaviour in court should be dealt with to ensure the right to a fair trial. This comes as a result of a man’s appeal against being jailed for a week by a District Court judge for contempt of court. The appeal was granted by the Supreme Court unanimously.

Mr. Tracey was before the court for driving without due care and attention in the District Court on 31 May 2006. Mr. Tracey was unrepresented and made comments in court such as “how crooked? And you think you will get away with this? How crooked you are”. Mr. Tracey stated that these comments were directed at a Garda after he was refused permission to read a statement to the court. The District Court judge directed that he be brought back before him and jailed for contempt.

Justice Donal O’Donnell in the Supreme Court distinguished between the procedures necessary when disciplinary action is necessary and procedures in exercise of contempt of court, which can result in imprisonment or a fine. It was acknowledged that Mr. Tracey had no right to make a statement and no right to persistently try to do so. However, this changed when he was brought back before the District Court in contempt of court. Here “more elaborate procedures” are necessary as the consequences of not having fair procedures may be detrimental to the persons’ right to a fair trial.

These procedures include whether it is necessary for the case to have a separate hearing and telling the person of the right to legal representation and legal aid, if applicable. Where the contempt was directly against the judge personally it will be necessary to have another judge hear and determine the matter.

Mr Justice McKenchie expressed “reservations” in relation to the bona fides of Mr. Tracey but as he was unsure that fair procedures were followed he “reluctantly” allowed the appeal.

It was also noted in the ruling that it would be desirable to have the contempt jurisdiction of courts on a statutory basis, which would be consistent with the constitutional obligation to administer justice.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission intervened as amicus curiae in the case, which the Court recognised as “helpful”. The Commission’s submission focused on compliance with the Constitution and European Convention on Human Rights as, amongst other things, the individual was not provided with adequate time to consider and react appropriately either to defend himself, apologise or take any other action.

Click here for Commission’s press release on the case.






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