As Ministers in the Turnbull Government are before the Victorian Court of Appeal to show cause why they should not be dealt with for contempt for comments made about a currently reserved case in that Court including accusing Judges of being ‘ideological’ and failing to apply the law, two recent other contempt cases are illustrative.

On 21 January 2016 Troy La Rue appeared in the New Plymouth District Court in New Zealand before Judge Allan Roberts to be sentenced for unpaid fines amounting to $6 244.00.  Upon being sentenced to 300 hours of community service in substitution for payment of the fines Mr La Rue was presented with a printed page containing a comment he had made just over a week earlier on social media regarding the story about Judge Roberts’ retirement.  After some prompting, Mr La Rue read aloud “LOL I hope the fuckers gone by Friday.  Ha ha.  Fucker, nah fuckin cunt his old face and saggy chin.  Fuck off”.  After confirming that the subject of the comment was indeed Judge Roberts, Mr La Rue apologised and acknowledged he had been caught out.   

In this example the serendipitous appearance of Mr La Rue before Judge Roberts provided an opportunity for the comment, which was entirely unconnected to any proceedings, to be addressed.  Such a comment can be classified as gratuitous nastiness and forms one end of the spectrum upon which on line comments about judicial officers may fall.

Towards the higher end of the spectrum is the example provided in the UK case of Daniel and Samuel Sledden.    On 16 February 2016, these two brothers were each sentenced to a term of imprisonment of two years, wholly suspended for drug offences.  Forty minutes later, 27 year old Daniel Sledden posted a status to Facebook expressing his disbelief at how lucky he was to have escaped a custody sentence that finished with an invitation to Judge Beverley Lunt to “go suck [his] dick”.  Samuel Sledden, aged 22, comments on the remark shortly after they were posted reflected his brother’s response to receiving a suspended sentence, albeit in more sedate terms. 

Upon becoming aware of the comments, Judge Lunt called the pair for review of their sentence and after a 10 day adjournment to consider the implications of the on line comments, during which bail was refused, the suspension was revoked and full time custody was ordered.  During the adjournment, Judge Lunt considered whether the comments amounted to contempt, harassment or any other criminal offence – concluding they did not.  Instead, the comments were used as evidence of the brothers’ lack of remorse and used as a factor in the redetermination of their sentence.  Unlike the La Rue case, the comments in this matter were directly connected to the proceedings and were not only disrespectful towards the Judge, but could be perceived as mocking the process[1].

The lesson to be learnt from this is that on line comments about Judges can land you in a lot of trouble.

[1] See Privacy Law Bulletin Vol 14 no. 3 2017 “On line comments and contempt” by Leah Findlay University of NSW @ p46