Richard Clayton QC wins guideline judgment on fair procedure principles to be applied to contempt cases in Trinidad Court of Appeal

On 2 April 2019 the Trinidad Court of Appeal gave judgment in Sturge v DPP reversing a finding that an advocate in a murder trial was guilty of summary contempt- and laid down guidelines stating fair procedure principles that must be used in contempt cases.  The case arose out of during the course of the cross-examination of the prosecution’s main witness by the appellant where the witness made remarks which the Court of Appeal described as “audacious”.  Fuelled, in part it, appears by frustration, the appellant expressed concerns on his Facebook page which generated commentary by third parties at a time when the trial was still ongoing.

The majority of the Court of Appeal overruled the trial judge, reversed the conviction and took the opportunity to highlight certain procedural safeguards in adjudicating contempt of court cases by summary procedure, the importance of which it said cannot be gainsaid. It held that:

  • In contempt proceedings, the decision to try an alleged contemnor summarily should only be taken in order to preserve the integrity of the trial and/or the dignity of the court.
  • The decision to proceed summarily should not be made hastily and it is important in appropriate circumstances to allow time for reflection on the alleged acts.
  • The alleged contemnor should be allowed a reasonable opportunity to properly investigate the circumstances.
  • The alleged contemnor should be given an opportunity to apologise to the Court.
  • The charge must be put to the alleged contemnor and he must understand the charge.
  • The alleged contemnor should be allowed, as the context and the circumstance of the case dictates, the opportunity to obtain legal representation and advice.
  • The alleged contemnor must enter a plea.
  • If the alleged contemnor has pleaded not guilty, he must be afforded the opportunity to present evidence, if he wishes, and to make submissions of fact and of law; and
  • where applicable, if the alleged contemnor is an attorney-at-law, the judge should at least consider the possibility of whether a reference to the Disciplinary Committee of the governing legal body might be a viable option.

A copy of the judgment is here