Three federal ministers recently were given the rounds of kitchen by Victorian judges, who declined to lock them up for alleged contempt. No doubt, through gritted teeth, the politicos resented their humiliation, but they should have rejoiced. Little people are granted no such indulgence
Contempt charges are almost always an exercise in judicial muscle. You are a gnat, a court will say, who has attacked the very foundations of the legal system that protects us all. And should you happen to be charged you’ll almost certainly be paraded, humiliated and spat out by judges claiming to act more in sorrow than anger. The problem is that some punished for contempt are lower-hanging fruit than others.
Legal precincts have always had their crews of cranks and angries, pushing traffic fines to extreme appeals, spending hours reading up obscure Privy Council judgments, busting to beat the system. Noble enough in the exercise of accessing a citizen’s right to seek justice, and courts indulge them to a point. But eventually the more bothered of them get charged with contempt for what are usually nothing more than cumulative and forlorn outbursts against what they regard as The System.
A soon-to-retire judge recently described one such litigant as “a pain in the arse”. A magistrate locked up another for interrupting him. A bubblegum-blower was led out the secure door for his act of misplaced defiance. These were little people of no consequence and few resources, and their fates stand in stark contrast to that of the three federal ministers who Victoria’s most senior judges said committed “prima facie” contempt for their observations that, in their personal opinion, judges were being soft on terror. A media squall that would otherwise have passed mostly unnoticed, the Victorian Supreme Court in this instance went full beserker on the ministers, also slapping The Australian for publishing their views.
Is there a lesson in this? Yes, but not perhaps the most obvious one. What those of us who haunt the courts understand is that self-represented litigants who lose their cool wind up in the clink, yet a trio of legally trained but half-baked ministers, represented by a phalanx of taxpayer-funded lawyers, get to skate after first frustrating the court with qualified regrets, which the beaks found insufficient, before finally making a finger-in-the-wind apology.
It goes further than that.
Forget you’ve perched your glasses on your head while seated in the body of the court and a clerk or tipstave will be dispatched by the bench to order that they put in in your pocket or on your nose. This is exactly what happened several years ago to a Herald Sun reporter, who was advised that he could be locked up if he did not do as ordered. The reporter, short-sighted, needed the spectacles off to see what he was writing in his notebook, and he needed them down to observe the judge and lawyers. The irony? He was covering the trial of Islamic radicals charged with conspiring to perpetrate terror. The weird beards refused to stand for the judge and went unpunished for their open and intended contempt. The inoffensive reporter wasn’t so blessed.
Cranks get cranky about the way the courts dole out contempt citations. Annoying as those obsessives may be, they are right to believe the law needs to be seen as equally applied.
Ian Munro-Meeks spends his working days in the belly of the court system.