Judges are well aware that litigation is stressful and that those involved may become angry or frustrated – however, there is a point at which abusive behaviour crosses the line. In a case on point, a man whose foul-mouthed tirade left a family judge deeply shaken came within a whisker of being sent to prison.
During a telephone hearing, the man swore repeatedly at the judge and referred to her as 'mate'. Despite several warnings, his angry interventions continued and he refused to listen to her. He said he was 'not bothered' by anything she had to say. He informed her that he was making an illegal recording of the hearing which he intended to make public. He was later summoned to appear before the High Court to answer an allegation that his behaviour amounted to contempt of court.
Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that judges perform a vitally important public duty and are sworn to preside over cases without fear or favour, affection or ill will. Although trained to show a degree of tolerance to emotional outbursts, they are entitled to conduct court hearings, and to make sometime life-changing decisions, without being subjected to abuse, either in or out of a courtroom.
By his behaviour, the man had shown himself unwilling to recognise the authority of the court. He had insulted the judge, been abusive towards her and disrupted the proceedings. She was understandably distressed and evidently concerned for the welfare of the man's partner, who was present during the hearing and had complained that he had behaved in a similar manner towards her.
The Court found that the only appropriate punishment for such a serious contempt was a sentence of imprisonment. The man had, however, written a letter of apology to the judge, declaring himself disgusted by his own behaviour. His mental health difficulties may also have contributed to his loss of control. The Court imposed a 14-day prison sentence but suspended the term for 12 months.