Is Contempt of Court Proceedings A Separate Proceedings From the Main Suit?

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Let us imagine this scenario: A person is charged in a criminal/ civil court (in the main proceedings). Subsequently, parties in the proceeding acted in a manner that is deemed to be in contempt of court. If one party wishes to bring a contempt proceeding against the other party, must they file for separate proceedings?  This issue was briefly dealt with in the Court of Appeal case of Uthayakumar Ponnusamy v Abdul Wahab Abdul Kassim (Pengarah Penjara Kajang) & Ors1.

Brief facts of the case

Uthayakumar was convicted by the Session Court for sedition and was sentenced to imprisonment. Uthayakumar appealed to the High Court. Whilst that was happening,  Uthayakumar made certain requests to the High Court. 

His request was granted. The High Court directed Abdul Wahab (the Director of Kajang Prison) and the Kajang Prison Wardens to adhere to the orders.

Lo and behold, those orders were not complied with. Aggrieved and disappointed, Uthayakumar commenced contempt proceedings against Abdul Wahab and the Kajang Prison Wardens. The chronological events of what transpired subsequently are as follow:

  1. The High Court granted leave to commence contempt proceedings only against Abdul Wahab;
  2. Uthayakumar appealed the decision of the High Court for not granting leave to commence contempt proceedings against the Kajang Prison Wardens.
  3. The appeal was duly dismissed by the Court of Appeal, citing the fact that those directives did not fall within the ambit of Order 42 of the Rules of Court (ROC)2 and as such, cannot be enforced under Order 45 of the ROC. The court further noted that in the event the directives are breached, it cannot form the basis of contempt proceedings under Order 52 of the ROC.
  4. Uthayakumar filed a motion to commit Abdul Wahab to prison. However, the matter was struck out by the High Court judge as Uthayakumar’s lawyer did not show up for the case management for the matter.
  5. Uthayakumar applied for reinstatement. The High Court dismissed the application, citing the decision of the Court of Appeal mentioned above.
  6. Uthayakumar appealed both matters to the court of appeal. He argued that since the alleged breach stems from a criminal proceedings, it would mean that the breach would amount to a criminal contempt  and not a civil one, rendering the application of ROC invalid, as ROC is applicable only for civil proceedings/ contempt.

The court of appeal’s decision and rationale

The court of appeal dismissed the appeal. In coming to its decision, the court held that:

  1. Contempt of court can be classified either as a civil contempt or a criminal contempt.
  2. Just because an alleged contempt arises from a criminal proceedings does not automatically make it a criminal contempt. Whether it is a criminal or civil contempt is dependent on the nature of the contempt.

How does the court define what is a civil/ criminal contempt?

A. Civil Contempt

  • Civil contempt occurs when a party disobeys judgment, orders or other processes of the court;
  • The end result of civil contempt is to coerce a party to do the thing required by the order for the benefit of the complaining party; and
  • The punishment for civil contempt is usually remedial in nature i.e. the punishment benefits the complaining party.

B. Criminal Contempt

  • Criminal contempt occurs when a party obstructs/ potentially obstructs/ interferes with the administration of justice;
  • The end result of criminal contempt is to preserve the court’s authority and to punish any party who disobey the court’s instructions;
  • The punishment for criminal contempt is usually punitive in nature i.e. to vindicate the authority of the court.

In conclusion

The court held that since the orders made in a course of the contempt proceedings might not have any bearing to the charge, conviction or appeal in the main proceedings (such as what happened in the case above), it can only mean one thing: as contempt proceedings does not necessarily mirrors the nature of the claim in the main proceedings, it must also mean that the contempt proceedings are also a separate and distinct proceeding from the main proceedings.

1. [2020] 1 CLJ 82.
2. 2012.

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