Is it still possible to scandalise the court?

10 August 2012

In a consultation opening today, the Law Commission is asking whether the offence of scandalising the court is still necessary or should be consigned to history.

Scandalising the court, also known as scandalising judges or scandalising the judiciary, is a form of contempt of court. You might commit the offence if you do or publish anything that ridicules the judiciary to such an extent that it is likely to bring the administration of justice into disrepute. This might include, for example, being extremely offensive towards a member of the judiciary or suggesting that they are corrupt. The offence is not concerned with conduct which risks prejudicing particular proceedings, but only with conduct that is likely to affect the administration of justice generally.  

The offence has not been successfully prosecuted in England and Wales since 1931, and calls are being made for it to be reviewed on a number of grounds:

  • the law in this area is known to be ambiguous and vague
  • most of the activities covered by the offence could be dealt with in other ways, for example by using the law of libel or, if the activity was particularly serious, bringing criminal charges for other offences (eg public order offences)
  • the offence may not be compatible with the right to free speech guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, and
  • some people have questioned why the judiciary should, in any case, be offered special protection.

The aim of the Commission’s consultation is to ask whether scandalising the court is still necessary in modern society in England and Wales. The Commission’s provisional view is that it should be abolished and it seeks views on that proposal and whether gaps might be left in the law. It also seeks views on whether, in the alternative, the law should it be replaced – and if so, with what kind of offence.

The consultation paper, Contempt of Court: Scandalising the Court, is available on the Commission’s website: http://www.lawcom.gov.uk/. The consultation closes on 5 October 2012.

Notes for Editors
1. The Law Commission is a non-political independent body, set up by Parliament in 1965 to keep all the law of England and Wales under review, and to recommend reform where it is needed.
2. For more details on the Contempt of Court project, visit http://www.lawcom.gov.uk/
3. For all press queries please contact:
Phil Hodgson, Head of External Relations 020 3334 0230
Jackie Samuel 020 3334 0216
Email: communications@lawcommission.gsi.gov.uk