Criminal contempt is serious interference with due administration of justice

The Court of First Instance in a recent judgment sets out the principle that criminal contempt is engaged when there is serious interference with the due administration of justice, adding that offenders are punished for the sake of public interest. It is important that members of the public should, in a law-abiding city, respect and comply with court orders including injunctions.

In the second half of 2019, various police quarters had been surrounded by large crowds targeting police officers and their families. Serious harassment had been escalated to violent acts against the residents, endangering their personal safety and even resulting in mental distress. Facilities of the quarters were also severely damaged.

As “guardian of public interest”, the Secretary for Justice obtained an injunction in October 2019 to restrain the conduct of such activities. In granting the order, the court acknowledged that “there is a high risk that, unless restrained, the defendants will cause substantial harm and damage to the occupants of the quarters and to the quarters”.

At the same time, the Airport Authority was granted an injunction order restraining persons from unlawfully and wilfully obstructing the proper use of the airport in light of the severe disruptions and chaos.

Amidst the social unrest and street violence, a sizeable number of netizens weaponized personal data and engaged themselves in doxxing activities against police officers and those with political views contrary to their own. Certain police officers and their family members even received letters threatening to hurt them brutally. In order to curb such despicable acts, the Secretary for Justice and the Commissioner of Police sought and obtained an injunction in October 2019 restraining persons from unlawfully and wilfully conducting themselves in those acts. It is noteworthy that the court expressed that “the promotion and maintenance of the rule of law is not sensibly or rationally pursued by repeated and escalating breaches of the law”, and “[p]ersons who commit such crimes are simply, and properly described as, ‘criminals’. Criminal activity does not cease to be criminal activity simply because the actor believes himself or herself to be acting for a particular, perhaps higher, cause”.

Doxxing activities towards counsel, judges, legislators and other persons involved in the administration of justice were found to be on the rise in 2020, especially when cases relating to the 2019 incidents were heard. Such unlawful acts must be curtailed. As pointed out by the court in its decision in a case of contempt of court, doxxing itself is capable of constituting criminal activity. In the injunction issued in October last year restraining the conduct of such activities towards Judges, Judicial Officers and their family members, the court held that “[i]t remains fundamental to the rule of law that litigants and the general public are able to place reliance on and have confidence in a Court system that is free from bias, and that the Judge or Judicial Officer in any case is the person who decides that case according to its evidence and the applicable law.”

Notwithstanding the injunctions, some people still blatantly violated these orders. Such conduct gave rise to serious challenge to the administration of justice and the rule of law. As a result, the Department of Justice has lodged committal applications for contempt of court. Contemnors, who admitted liability for contempt of court, were sentenced, including immediate imprisonment, and below are some significant messages set out in the judgments:

(1) It is fundamental to the rule of law that court orders are made to be obeyed. Contempt of court orders is a serious matter. Thus, the starting penalty for both civil and criminal contempt of court in breaching an injunction order is imprisonment, perhaps measured in months.

(2) Criminal contempt threatens the due administration of justice as a whole and presents a direct challenge to the rule of law. The immense public interest involved in protecting the due administration of justice as an integral component of the rule of law ordinarily calls for a deterrent sentence on the contemnor.

(3) Punishment and deterrence are the major sentencing considerations for cases of criminal contempt. The sentence to be imposed should contain an element of general and personal deterrence.

(4) Rights and freedoms do not exist in a vacuum and they come with responsibilities. Any person exercising their own rights and freedom must simultaneously have respect for the rights and freedom of others. Freedom of speech certainly does not embrace any right to harass or intimidate, threaten or menace. Irrespective of a person’s political stance, there are proper channels to express one’s views in a legitimate and proper manner.

Whilst these injunctions relate to specific categories of persons, a common thread from these judgments is that doxxing activities are not to be condoned. The Government will legislate to prevent doxxing so that the general public will also be protected in their own rights. Not only would these doxxing activities violate privacy rights, when conducted with a view to deter or levy a direct or indirect threat against a person from discharging his/ her duties or exercising his/ her rights, these must be stopped. It falls upon each of us to join hands and condemn these actions so that the law and order that has been restored after the passing of the National Security Law is maintained, so that people are free to exercise their rights whilst respecting that of others. All of us should jointly bear the responsibility to respect, promote and further the rule of law as a fundamental basis of our society.

March 28, 2021