Contempt of court

The power to punish summarily for contempt is essential for the court to uphold its dignity and authority, but this power is a drastic one, which should not be resorted to lightly.

Where the power is exercised, the judicial officer must not act in the heat of the moment in anger. The atmosphere will be emotionally charged so he must recover his temper and act objectively. He must remind himself that in this sort of case he is acting as prosecutor, witness and judge in the same cause. He must be particularly careful in respect of situations where defence lawyers have had altercations with him during the course of the presentation of the defence case. Lawyers may sometimes direct insulting remarks towards the bench where they believe that the adjudicators have acted unfairly towards their clients. The usual response to such cases should be to warn defence counsel about their behaviour and to allow them to retract their remarks and apologise. Defence lawyers should remember that it will not do their client's case any good to embark on a course of acrimonious confrontation with the judicial officer.


In the case of In re T D Muskwe HH-14-92 a magistrate had fined a legal practitioner for contempt of court in contravention of s 79(1) of the Magistrates Court Act. At an earlier hearing of a criminal case presided over by the same magistrate, the practitioner had ended up renouncing his agency and walking out of court. This had followed an altercation between the magistrate and the legal practitioner over the legal practitioner's line of questioning of a witness. The magistrate decided he was guilty of contempt in that he had done an act calculated to bring the dignity of the court into disrepute. The High Court set aside this decision. It found that the magistrate had failed to give adequate reasons for her decision and, in particular, had failed to examine whether the vital element of intention was present and whether, if there had been a contempt, it had been purged by the subsequent apology by the legal practitioner.


In the case of In re: Chinamasa 2000 (2) ZLR 322 (S) the Supreme Court ruled that the species of contempt known as scandalizing the court was constitutional. Although under the right to freedom of expression there is a right to criticize the court judgments, the right to freedom of expression did not permit the making of comments imputing corrupt or improper motives to the judicial officers as this would create a real or substantial risk of impairing public confidence in the administration of justice. In this case the Attorney-General had severely criticized a sentence imposed by a judge.


Prescription period for criminal offences

All the criminal offences which are within the jurisdiction of the magistrates courts become prescribed if prosecutions are not brought against the offenders within twenty years from the time that those crimes were committed. In other words, the offenders can no longer be prosecuted for these offences after twenty years: s 23 CPEA.