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Government calls on Law Commission to conduct review into law on contempt of court

The Government has requested the Law Commission of England and Wales conduct a review into the law on contempt of court over concerns that it is "disordered and unclear".

Codification and simplification of contempt law and clarification on the responsibility for the adjudication, investigation and prosecution of contempts will be some of the areas looked at by the review, according to the Government's law reform advisory body.

Overall, the review will seek to uncover potential areas for reform to improve its effectiveness, consistency, and coherence, the Commission said.

It noted that the development of the law of contempt had been "unsystematic, resulting in a regime that is often disordered and unclear".

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Problems with the current law arise from the confusing distinction between civil and criminal contempt of court, the multiple ways in which contempt can be committed, and the overlap between the law of contempt and criminal offences relating to the administration of justice, such as perverting the course of justice, the Commission added.

There are also growing concerns about the impact of social media and technological advancements on the administration of justice.

The Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General's Office have asked the Law Commission to review the law on both criminal and civil contempt and, in particular, to consider:

  • codification and simplification of the law of contempt, and the extent to which certain contempts should be defined as criminal offences;
  • the responsibility for the adjudication, investigation and prosecution of contempts, as well as courts' and tribunals' powers and protections relating to contempt proceedings;
  • the effectiveness of the current provisions on committing contempt by publishing information on court proceedings, including consideration of the right to freedom of expression protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights;
  • the appropriateness of penalties for contempt of court; and
  • whether problems might arise from procedure in contempt of court proceedings, and whether there is scope for improving the relevant procedural rules.

Commenting on the launch of the contempt of court project, Professor Penney Lewis, the Law Commissioner for Criminal Law, said the law on contempt of court is "essential to preventing interference in the administration of justice and upholding the rule of law, but the many laws governing it are outdated, unclear and at times in conflict".

She added: "Our review will examine how the law of contempt can be simplified and modernised, to create a regime that responds fairly and proportionately to those who undermine the legal process."

Nicholas Paines QC, the Law Commissioner for Public Law and Law in Wales, said: "There must be a mechanism in law to ensure that courts – from the most senior courts to tribunals – are able to control their proceedings and enforce timely compliance with their orders. This review will consider whether there are appropriate powers to meet this objective."

The Commission aims to publish a consultation paper at the end of 2022, inviting views on its provisional proposals for reform.

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