The Contempt of Court Act 2019 (the Act) is ushering in a new set of powers to the Courts which are all more or less aimed at curtailing bad behaviour. These powers will, of course, apply to the Employment Court, but the Employment Relations Authority is also lumped in with the Courts and will have a new range of tools at its disposal to control wayward litigants. The key changes focus on controlling what is labelled “disruptive behaviour”, on enforcing orders of the Authority (or Court) that have not been complied with and on people making false statements about the Authority or Court.
The Employment Relations Authority currently has the power to issue a penalty against an individual for delaying or obstructing an investigation meeting: s 134A of the Employment Relations Act 2000. On a per breach basis penalties can be up to $20,000 for a body corporate and up to $10,000 for an individual. Such penalties have been issued a number of times. However, in addition to this power, the Authority will also be given powers to manage “disruptive behaviour”. The Authority (or Court) will be entitled to take action if they believe any person is wilfully disrupting the Authority (or Court) proceedings or wilfully and without lawful excuse disobeying any order or direction of the Authority (or Court) in the course of the proceedings (s 16(1)).
Consequences can follow where the Authority (or Court) find that disruptive behaviour has taken place. The Authority (or Court) can take one or more of the following actions:
order that the person be excluded from the investigation meeting, and
cite the person for disruptive behaviour and order that the person be taken into custody and detained until a time no later than the time the investigation meeting concludes for the day (s 16(2)).
Where an individual is cited as having engaged in disruptive behaviour, the matter can take a more serious turn. On finding beyond a reasonable doubt that the person is guilty of disruptive behaviour, the Authority (or Court) can take the following actions:
issue a warrant committing the person to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months; or
impose on the person a fine not exceeding $10,000; or
order the person to do community work, not exceeding 200 hours, as the Authority thinks fit ((s 17(5)).
The Authority (and Court) will have new powers to enforce any order it has made against any party. Where someone has failed to comply with orders, the Authority (and Court) can take the following actions:
commit the person involved to a term of imprisonment not exceeding six months
impose a fine, in the case of an individual, not exceeding $25,000; or in the case of a body corporate, not exceeding $100,000, and
order the person involved to do community work, not exceeding 200 hours (s 22(4)).
False statements about the Authority or the Court
Changes are also being introduced to discourage slanderous comments being made about the Authority or Court. Making a false statement about the Authority or Court will be an offence under the Act. A person commits an offence if:
The person publishes a false statement about an Authority Member or the Authority (or Court)
the person knew or ought reasonably to have known that the statement could undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, impartiality, or authority of the Authority (or Court), and
there is a real risk that the statement could undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, impartiality, or authority of the Authority (or Court) (s 24A(1)).
A person who commits that offence is liable on conviction:
in the case of an individual, to a term of imprisonment not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding $25,000, or
in the case of a body corporate, to a fine not exceeding $100,000 (s 24A(2)).
The High Court also has the power to issue a take-down order in respect of the offending material (s 25).
The Contempt of Court Act 2019 comes into effect on 26 August 2020, unless an earlier date is appointed by Order in Council.
The Contempt of Court Act 2019 can be obtained from www.legislation.govt.nz.
Reproduced with the permission of Wolters Kluwer NZ