One of the first things you’re taught as a journalist in terms of court reporting is how to avoid landing yourself in contempt of court. There’s a very good reason for this. There are limited workplaces where putting a foot wrong can land you in a cell but it can be a hazard of the job if you work in the courts.
The thing with contempt of court is that it’s perilously easy to land yourself in it, whoever you are. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious contempt of court could be broadly described as anything that breaks the rules of the court. It could be a witness contacting a juror directly or, as happened in a recent case in the UK a juror contacting the accused. For a journalist it could be printing something prejudicial to the defence during a trial or printing matters said in the absence of the jury, even turning on a recording device in court. Some of these things are easy to avoid if you know the job – though mistakes do happen – but other forms of contempt are harder to duck.
There are many reasons not to comply with a court order. It could be journalists refusing to reveal their sources, as happened to Colm Keena of the Irish Times some years ago or a case like that of Offaly pensioner Teresa Treacy who was jailed for contempt for not allowing the ESB onto her land to cut down her trees.
But not all contempt is as easy to spot. There’s a type of contempt known as “scandalising the court”. This is the rule that, broadly speaking, means that a judge can throw anyone in his court into a cell for not showing sufficient respect. That might call to mind Soviet dictatorships or the Wild West but thems the rules. I’ve heard gardai threatened with contempt for gum chewing and an accused threatened for not sitting up straight. Last week in Bray District Court a barrister ended up on the wrong side of a contempt charge for not sitting down when he was told. Apparently the judge in that case, Judge Murrough Connellan has a bit of a name for running a strict courtroom. Back in 2006 he jailed a punk father for wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt in court.
Judgements like the Bray one and Teresa Treacy’s incarceration might raise considerable comment but it’s the nature of things. The judge is in charge of the courtroom and some wield that authority heavier than others. There aren’t many judges now that would throw contempt at someone who’d arrived in court in jeans, or the wrong t-shirt for that matter, but it’s usually a good idea to dress neatly – just in case.
In a totally unrelated matter, I’ve been writing elsewhere this week. The National Library of Ireland asked me to write a post on my specialist subject ahead of their Thrillers and Chillers season of Library Late talks. I’ve been spending a lot of time there recently, researching far more lawless times than these so I wrote a post on our fascination with murder and how some things never change – with examples from the 1850s.