6 May 2018

Is one dead cat still contempt?

From The House , 7:35 am on 6 May 2018

The concept of contempt of court is easy: something like defiance of the dignity or direction of a court of law. 


The actual law that underpins it has been a trickier fish. The law of contempt is currently spread both across legislation and precedent and is increasingly out of touch with changing technology.


In Parliament the former Attorney General Chris Finlayson’s Member’s Bill to update the law passed a first reading and will now go to Select Committee. It is also now likely to be picked up by the current Minister of Justice (Andrew Little) as Government Legislation.

240714. Photo Diego Opatowski / RNZ. Maori from Tuhoe arriving for the final reading of the iwi's Treaty Settlement in Parliament. Chris Finlayson.

Chris Finlayson in the House when he was Attorney General in the National led Government Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski



In outlining the problem of such a fractured law, Chris Finlayson recalled that in the 19th Century an upset litigant threw a dead cat at a judge. The judge declared that if he did that again he would hold the man in contempt. Which caused Chris Finlayson to wonder whether therefore throwing one dead cat at a judge was fine; only two dead cats constituted contempt.


He wasn’t being serious, but regardless, relying on scattered precedent can have pitfalls when the world moves on. The dead cats these days are online. The law now needs to accommodate tweeting jurors and bloggers instantly revealing details that could prejudice a fair trial or a victim’s privacy.


There was also discussion during the debate of an increasing level of activism against judges, including protesting outside their houses. And the difficulty of finding a balance of allowing criticism but protectin ghte individuals and the office.


For a discussion with the former Attorney General and excerpts from the first-reading debate listen to the audio story above.