Thursday, May 20, 2010

Highest procedural protection, but not by jury trial

Since proceedings for contempt of court must be summary, in the sense that jury trials are not appropriate for contempt, they cannot be punished at a level that would carry the right to jury trial: Siemer v Solicitor-General [2010] NZSC 54 (17 May 2010) per Blanchard, Wilson and Anderson JJ.

The minority (Elias CJ and McGrath J) agreed that summary procedure for attempt was necessary, but that punishment could be imposed at a level that would otherwise require a jury trial because that was a justified limitation on the right to trial by jury.

Therefore Mr Siemer won this appeal, in the sense that the punishment for his contempt could not exceed 3 months' imprisonment – the level at which in New Zealand the right to jury trial arises (with some minor exceptions) pursuant to s 24(e) New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

The reasoning in the majority judgment contains an interesting turn-around, without being objectionable. Starting from the proposition that whenever a person can be punished by imprisonment he is entitled to the highest procedural protection known to the law (citing Wilson J as she then was in R v Wigglesworth [1987] 2 SCR 541), and that this applies whether or not the liability arises from criminal or civil proceedings, the majority added that s 5 of the Bill of Rights does not permit an exception to the right to trial by jury if the penalty for a contempt should be more than three months' imprisonment. So far, so good: one would think the majority reasoning was heading to a conclusion that jury trial was available. But no. There had never been a jury trial in proceedings for contempt in New Zealand, and the Court of Appeal had held that contempt proceedings are not indictable: Solicitor-General v Radio Avon Ltd [1978] 1 NZLR 225 at 235, as had the House of Lords: Re Lonrho Plc [1990] 2 AC 154. Since jury trial is inappropriate for contempt, the maximum penalty cannot exceed the summary level.

Obviously, repetition of the contempt could attract a further sentence. This was a case of contempt committed by a blogger, and the majority noted that it seems that on the internet a new contempt is committed every time access is permitted to the relevant item: Loutchansky v Times Newspapers Ltd (No 2) [2001] EWCA Civ 1085 at 51 – 76; Dow Jones & Company Inc v Gutnick (2002) 210 CLR 575 at 42 - 44, 128 and 191 – 196. The majority noted that some long periods of imprisonment have occurred for on-going contempts in the United States (para 58, footnote 65), but "It is very unlikely, indeed impossible, that a New Zealand court would follow that extreme example...".

Here the sentence was tailored to give the contemnor the opportunity of immediate release upon his cessation of the contempt and upon his undertaking not to repeat it, and indeed the commencement of the sentence was delayed to give him that opportunity. It seems that Mr Siemer believes that he removed the offending items from his site some time ago.

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