Chapter 2
General matters

History of contempt

2.1Today’s contempt laws were developed by the courts over the centuries to prevent or punish conduct that may interfere with the administration of justice.

2.2Historically, the law of contempt developed out of the King’s power as a source of justice to punish abuses and affronts to the King’s peace and the King’s courts. As early as the 12th century, actions or words that interfered with the administration of justice could be punished by the King’s courts as contempt against the King’s peace. The rolls and year books contain references to contempts of court.5

2.3From these earliest times, the superior courts of common law in England exercised jurisdiction over contempt emanating from the sovereign’s power. Power to punish contempt, together with a range of other unrelated powers, came to be called the “inherent jurisdiction” of the superior courts.

2.4The writ of attachment appeared regularly in the early contempt cases. The writ ensured the court had some control over a party to secure that party’s appearance in court, either by imprisonment of the body or by the taking of securities.

2.5In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Star Chamber took on some of the jurisdiction of the King’s Council and punished contempts of the common law courts. The Star Chamber dealt with contempts by a summary process rather than by the common law procedure. When the Star Chamber was abolished in 1640, the King’s Bench acquired all the lawful power that had been vested in the Star Chamber and also adopted the summary procedure of the Star Chamber.6
2.6In New Zealand, inherent jurisdiction now resides in the High Court. The Judicature Act 1908 amended and consolidated the law relating to the Supreme Court (the forerunner of today’s High Court) and the Court of Appeal.7 The Judicature Act recognises and affirms that the High Court has “all the jurisdiction which it had on the coming into operation of this Act and all judicial jurisdiction which may be necessary to administer the laws of New Zealand”.8 By virtue of the earlier provisions of the Supreme Court Acts of 1860 and 1882, the High Court has all the jurisdiction possessed by the superior courts in England at the time the 1860 Act came into force.9
2.7The remaining vestiges of the historic power of the sovereign to punish contempt by committal to prison consequently reside now in the High Court. Joseph Williams J helpfully summarised the position:10

... the superior Court, known today in New Zealand as the High Court, has additional jurisdiction in respect of contempt and other matters. That jurisdiction arises out of the origins of the High Court. That is, it was originally an emanation of the sovereign and still carries vestiges of the original attributes of the sovereign. These vestiges predate the creation of a representative legislature in England and are described today in New Zealand as the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court.

2.8The inherent jurisdiction of the High Court in respect of contempt has been supplemented by Acts of Parliament. For example, contempt in the face of the court and civil contempt are now subject to some statutory provisions. However, much of contempt remains within the common law and is still dealt with by the High Court in its inherent jurisdiction.

5For a full historical account, see David Eady and ATH Smith (eds) Arlidge, Eady and Smith on Contempt (4th ed, Sweet & Maxwell, London, 2011).
6R Joseph “Inherent Jurisdiction and Inherent Powers in New Zealand” (2005) 11 Canta LR 220 at 228.
7Spiller, Finn and Boast A New Zealand Legal History (2nd ed, Brookers, Wellington, 2001) at 209.
8Judicature Act 1908, s 16.
9Supreme Court Act 1882, s 16; Supreme Court Act 1860, ss 4−6.
10P v F (2009) 27 FRNZ 603 (HC).