Case may show up weaknesses of contempt law
ANALYSIS:The jailing of Seán Quinn jnr for contempt of court was not a punishment but an attempt to force compliance with court orders
IT IS CLEAR from some of the commentary about the committal to prison of Seán Quinn jnr and his cousin Peter Darragh Quinn (though the latter remains at large) that there is some confusion among the public about why they are in jail, especially when others involved in the banking collapse have not been before the courts.
But the Quinns have not been charged with any offence, still less convicted.
The orders to imprison Seán Quinn jnr and his cousin arose from civil actions resulting from Seán Quinn snr’s disastrous decision to borrow money from what was then Anglo Irish Bank in order to buy its shares. He sought to avoid repaying that money by putting €500 million in assets beyond the reach of the bank, which is now owned by the taxpayers. The High Court ordered the Quinns to return the assets.
Imprisonment for failure or refusal to comply with court orders is the weapon of last resort for the courts. The committal to prison of the Quinns involves a failure to comply with orders concerning an enormous amount of money, and is the highest-profile committal for contempt since the jailing of Liam Lawlor in 2001 and 2002 for refusing to co-operate with the Flood tribunal.
But they are not unique in being jailed for contempt of court.
Until recently, committal for contempt was usually used in the District Court for failure to pay a debt, including maintenance payments. However, this was recently found to be unconstitutional where the debtor was unable to pay, and the law was changed.
Usually, civil contempt of court committals were low-key affairs.
A Contempt of Court Act was enacted in the UK in 1981, but there is no such Act here, though the Law Reform Commission reported on the subject in 1994, where it recommended codifying the courts’ powers in legislation. That never happened, and the law remains largely judge-made, arising from the need for the courts to ensure their orders are implemented.
There are two kinds of contempt of court: criminal and civil. Criminal contempt involves contempt “in the fact of the court”, scandalising the court, interfering with the administration of justice, breaching the sub-judice rule, and so on. This can result in a person being committed to prison for contempt, and released when he or she “purges his contempt”, normally by apologising to the court.
Civil contempt, which arose in the Quinn case, involves defiance of a court order. Its purpose is coercive, not punitive, and the imprisonment is theoretically open-ended; the person can remain in prison until he or she “purges his contempt” by obeying the court order.