Whether a Person Convicted for Contempt is an Ex-Convict – (Inibehe Effiong as Case Study)

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By Bright Jumbo

Who is a convict/ Ex- Convict?

A convict is “a person found guilty of a crime and sentenced by a court or a person who is serving a sentence in prison . Convicts are often also known as “prisoners” or “inmates” or by the slang term “con”, while a common label for former convicts, especially those recently released from prison, is “ex-con” (“ex-convict”). Persons convicted and sentenced to non-custodial sentences tend not to be described as “convicts”.

The label of “ex-convict” usually has lifelong implications, such as social stigma or reduced opportunities for employment. In some countries for instance, they will not, in general, employ an ex-convict, while some countries   may limit the time for or before which a former convict may be employed. In Nigeria by virtue of section 107 of the 1999 constitution, an ex -convict is not allowed to participate in contesting for certain positions.

Generally where a person has been convicted he becomes an ex-convict and all attached to the status of an ex- convict becomes of him but what happens in a situation where a person was convicted for contempt of court will the designation ex- convict apply . This article seeks to elaborate on this using the recent case of a human right activist convicted for contempt as a case study.

What then  is contempt?

The blacks Law dictionary defines ‘contempt’ as an act which is calculated to embarass,  hinder or obstruct the court in the Administration of justice.

Section 311 of the Criminal Code provides for certain acts which may amount to contemp of court. Contempt is not restricted to any particular group or person . It may be committed by a lawyer or any other citizen. In the case of Atake v Attorney General of the Federation, (1982) LPELR-586(SC), the Supreme Court Justice Idigbe quoting from stated as follows:

‘It is, indeed, difficult to give exact definition of contempt of court, and this is because “it is so manifold in its aspects” … but generally, it may be described as any conduct which tends to bring into disrespect, scorn or disrepute the authority and administration of the law or which tends to interfere with and/or prejudice litigants and/or their witnesses in the course of litigation. One important kind of contempt “is scandalising the court”  and so “counsel or advocate” may in the interest of his client cast reflections upon the conduct, character, or credit of the parties or witnesses. The first type of contempt for which a committal proceeding can be set in motion, is contempt in facie curiae. It is a contempt which is committed coram judice or in the face of the Court. It may arise as a result of disrespectful conduct or comments made in the Court room by a contemnor when proceedings are going on and which is seen and heard by the judge, which undermines the dignity of the Court or which interferes with the administration of justice. In other words, it may be conduct which obstructs or disrupts proceedings of Court’.

Under this class of contempt, there is no need to call for evidence of what transpired, because it happened in the immediate view of the Court. The Judge saw and heard the contemnor commit what the Court considers contemptuous, and so punishment is meted out summarily, after the contemnor is asked to show cause why he should not be sent to prison for his contempt.

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It must be pointed out that for the purpose of a court rendering punishment for contempt under this category, a distinction must be drawn between conduct which affect the dignity of the Court or which tend to bring the administration justice to disrepute and conduct which merely annoys the judge. The distinction is necessary so that the power of the Court to give punishment for contempt in protection dignity of the Court is not abused. This point is best explained in words of Lord Tucker of Privy Council, in JOSEPH IZUORA V THE QUEEN where he observed as follows: “It is not every act of discourtesy to the Court by Counsel that amounts to contempt, nor any conduct which involves a breach by Counsel of his duty to his client. In the present case the appellant’s conduct was clearly discourteous, it may have been a breach of the rules and it may perhaps have been a dereliction of his duty to his client but in their Lordship’s opinion it cannot properly be placed over the line that divides mere discourtesy from contempt.”

The Supreme Court of Nigeria in the case of INEC & ANOR V OGUEBEGO & ORS, whilst considering the instance when words or actions used in the face of the Court or in the course of proceedings be deemed contemptuous, held as follows: “For words or actions used in the face of the Court, or in the course of proceedings, to be contempt, they must be such as would interfere with the course of justice. A superior Court of record has the inherent jurisdiction to deal with contempt in facie curiae and punish for the offence summarily. It must once again be emphasised that the summary power of punishing for contempt should however, be used sparingly and only in serious cases….”

Pertinent to the matters in question, although they would, outside a Court of Justice, be actionable as slanderous. This however, will not justify an advocate in using language which, apart from such criticism, is personally insulting or generally scandalous” [see Oswald on Contempt committal & Attachment 3rd Edition 1910 at p. 54 citing in support, Ex Parte Pater (1864) 5 B & S. 299]. On this principle, a barrister was sentenced to a fine for saying, in the course of proceedings, that a Baron of the Exchequer Chamber was a “Judge de gratia” {see 82 ER at 1100 also cited in Oswald op. cit. p.54 note}. The same latitude is also extended to litigants who appear in person (and this expression includes lawyers appearing in person to conduct their own suits); but on the same principle it has been said that the indulgence “should not be extended to permit them to continue an improper course of conduct after warning from the Judge, nor to use unbecoming or abusive language.”There are two ways that a court may deal with contempt. If the contempt took place in the face of the court, the court or judicial officer may deal with it summarily, i.e., hear and conclude the matter as it comes up. This method can be chosen where the alleged contempt is virtually incontestable. The second way is to conduct a full blown criminal trial, which must follow the procedure for all criminal prosecutions from arrest, charge, arraignment, prosecution, defence, etc. Whether the contempt is dealt with summarily or prosecuted as a criminal offence, the process must adhere to the principles of natural justice especially with regard to giving the contemnor an opportunity to defend himself.

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If found guilty of contempt, the court may punish the contemnor in several ways including committal to prison. The court may pardon the contemnor if his conduct was unintentional and he apologises to the court. The court may refuse to hear anything further from the contemnor who, for instance, has disobeyed an order of the court, until he has purged himself of the contempt, i.e, he has complied with the court’s order.

What are the types of Contempt ? 

Generally, there are two types of contempt:

  1. Contempt in -facie curiae
  2. Contempt ex-facie Curiae
  1. Contempt in facie curiae- is words spoken or actions taken within the court which interferes with the due administration of justice.
  1. Contempt ex facie curiae- are words spoken or published, or actions taken outside the precincts of the court, which are calculated to interfere with the administration of justice.Contempt of court whether committed in the face of court of outside refers to any action that disrespects the authority of the court and brings the court/judge into disrepute. The offence is important for the administration of justice. Nobody takes orders from an authority that they do not respect. Therefore, if the court is brought into disrepute, the entire justice system is at risk of losing its potency.

Contempt of court is a simple offence as enshrined in Section 133 of the criminal code thus, once a person is convicted like every other offence he become an ex- convict  irrespective of the cruminal act leading to the conviction.

On the case study whether Inibehe Effiong would become an ex-convict having been convicted for contempt.

Very recently, a controversial human rights lawyer in Uyo Inibehe Effiong was sentenced to one month in Prison custody by the Chief Justice of Akwa Ibom State, Ekaette Obot on alleged contempt. The alleged contempt was  in facie curiae or happened  right before the judge during judicial proceeding, the judge having the inherent power cited the alleged contemnor summarily and sentence him to prison for contempt.

The contemnor who has no previous records of conviction was led immediate to serve his one month term in prison custody having being convicted for contempt in the face of the Court. It is pertinent to state that unless his conviction is set aside on appeal the conviction so stands and he would become an ex – convict as all the disqualification attributed to an ex- convict would apply.

Contempt of court is a serious offense and a lawyer will be said to have committed contempt of court if the lawyer does something that interferes with the powers of the Court to administer justice or does anything which may in any way obstruct the course of justice or tries to undermine the authority or power of the court to administer justice and the Court is entitled to invoke its innate powers to punish the person, be it a lawyer or a bystander by committing the person to prison till the person purges him or herself of the contempt and apologize to the court.

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The legal profession is an honorable profession so there are laws and rules regulating the affairs of lawyers in court and even out of court. A lawyer is expected to be disciplined and display a high level of integrity and professionalism at all times.

In court, a lawyer is expected to conduct his case with utmost respect and discipline; respect and regard for the co-lawyers on the other side of the divide, and respect to the bench (the judge(s)). A lawyer should never on any account raise his voice on a judge or show any form of disrespect to a judge or never be seen to use some foul tone or foul language on a judge or while addressing other counsels or any other person present in court. If a lawyer does that he will be held to have committed contempt of court and a judge has the power to order the committal of the lawyer to prison till the lawyer purged  and the status becomes about  the of an ex- convict.

Like with every other offence Section .3 of the Criminal Code  provides  that:

A felony -is an offence which is declared by the law to be so and  has punishment, without proof of previous conviction, ranging from three years to the death penalty.

Misdemeanor -offences are those that have been described by the law to be a misdemeanor and are punishable by imprisonment ranging from less than 3 years to more than 6 months.

Simple offences- are those offences other than felony and misdemeanor. They are often punished with an imprisonment of less than 6 months.

Contempt of court irrespective of the type rightly falls under the third category of offences namely simple offences  and where  a person is so convicted he becomes an ex-convict irrespective of the category  of offence. In this  instance case the human right activist Inibehe Effiong stands convicted for contempt in-facie curiae and unless this conviction is dismissed on appeal,  he stands being called an ex- convict and other disqualification enshrined in the 1999 constitution for ex- convicts would apply.

Conclusion

Committal proceeding as encapsulated above is a process that affects the liberty of an individual because it is criminal in nature. Therefore, the procedure provided by law must be complied with. Failure to comply with any of the procedures set out above constitutes a fundamental vice which will render the whole committal process a nullity. In the case of DIKIBO V IBULUYA, the Court held that “as committal proceedings touch on deprivation of freedom and liberty of the person, the service and procedure thereof are applied strictly and any break or departure from the Strict application vitiates the proceedings”. But where the procedure laid down in the law has been duly complied with a person so  convicted and served the tenue  automatically becomes an ex-  convict irrespective of how brief the sentence.

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