Contempt textbook draws on experience

The release of the first comprehensive textbook on the law of contempt in Australia will be warmly welcomed, media law experts told the Brisbane Supreme Court last week.

The Australian Academy of Law hosted the launch of Contempt by University of Sydney Professor David Rolph last Wednesday, which included a welcome from Supreme Court Justice Peter Applegarth, and commentary from Brisbane barrister Patrick McCafferty KC.

Professor Rolph, who is considered an authority on media law, said he wrote the book for several reasons, including that it would be a book he would read and use himself.

“I have been researching and teaching contempt of court for two decades – I interpolate that, having spent several years researching and writing this book, I am convinced that many law students and indeed many legal practitioners are not sufficiently aware of the requirements of contempt of court (until it becomes necessary to invoke this area of law) and that consideration should be given to whether all law students should be exposed at least the rudiments of contempt of court,” he said.

“After all, the power to deal with contempt is an essential characteristic of a court and a fundamental aspect of the administration of justice.

“So I have been intellectually interested in contempt of court and its myriad curiosities for some time, and I also identified a gap in the market.”

Professor Rolph said standard texts on contempt had principally focused on United Kingdom law, and Australian law had diverged from this in many significant ways.

Professor David Rolph

However, he admitted he underestimated the challenges of writing a book about the topic.

“My other major books have tended to focus on defamation law, which has a deserved reputation for being a complex, technical and artificial tort. However, as a tort, defamation has a distinct advantage: it resolves itself neatly into the phases of liability, defences and remedies,” he said.

“Contempt of court as a body of doctrine is altogether more amorphous than defamation. It presents a real challenge to any author seeking to impose some sense and structure on the law, not only for the author’s own understanding but also to allow the book to be of use to readers.”

He said over the course of writing the book, he became convinced the law of contempt should be placed on a statutory footing.

“My main reason for thinking this is that the law of contempt is a body of principle legal practitioners and judges consult only when the need arises, and in many circumstances, when the need for a clear answer is acute,” he said.

“The complexity of the law of contempt makes providing clear, accessible and correct advice more difficult than it needs to be.

“Taking the time to think through the myriad problems of contempt and placing the law in a single statute, which legal practitioners and judges can consult, would seem to be a rational approach to the law.

“Of course, I may not have an interest in such law reform occurring too quickly. Such a development might diminish sales of this book!”

Professor Rolph has also written on topics including defamation, privacy and the administration of justice.

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