A Separate Proceedings for Contempt of Court?

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A Separate Proceedings for Contempt of Court?

June 29, 2020 Litigation Advisory & Strategy Public Interest Disputes 0

Are contempt proceedings separate and distinct proceedings from the main proceedings? For example, does it mean that if a person is charged in a criminal court (in the main proceedings), any conduct which gives rise to a contempt of court automatically becomes a criminal contempt? This issue was briefly dealt with in the Court of Appeal case of Uthayakumar Ponnusamy v Abdul Wahab Abdul Kassim (Pengarah Penjara Kajang) & Ors.

Brief facts of the case

The appellant, in this case, Uthayakumar, was convicted by the Session Court for sedition and was sentenced to imprisonment. Uthayakumar appealed the decision to the High Court. Whilst the appeal was going on,  Uthayakumar made certain requests to the High Court. The High Court granted those requests and directed the respondents in this case (Abdul Wahab, as the Director of Kajang Prison and the Kajang Prison Wardens) to adhere to the orders. 

It was alleged by Uthayakumar that none of the respondents complied with the directives of the High Court. Aggrieved by their non-compliance, Uthayakumar commenced a contempt proceedings against the respondents. At this juncture, a number of events (amongst others) transpired:

  1. The High Court granted leave to commence contempt proceedings only against Abdul Wahab;
  2. Uthayakumar appealed the decision of the High Court for not granting leave to commence contempt proceedings against the Kajang Prison Wardens. The appeal was duly dismissed by the Court of Appeal, citing the fact that:
    • Those directives did not fall within the ambit of Order 42 of the Rules of Court (ROC);
    • As such, cannot be enforced under Order 45 of the ROC; and
    • In the event the directives are breached, it cannot form the basis of a contempt proceedings under Order 52 of the ROC.
  3. Uthayakumar filed a motion to commit Abdul Wahab to prison. However, the matter was struck out by the High Court judge as Uthayakumar’s lawyer did not show up for the case management for the matter.
  4. Uthayakumar applied for reinstatement. The High Court dismissed the application, citing the decision of the Court of Appeal mentioned above. 
  5. Uthayakumar appealed, but the appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeal. 

Uthayakumar’s contention 

Uthayakumar argued that since the alleged breach stems from criminal proceedings, it would mean that the breach would amount to a criminal contempt and not a civil one, rendering the application of ROC invalid, as ROC is applicable only for civil proceedings/ contempt. 

The court’s rationale

In dismissing the appeal, the court held that contempt can be classified under two categories. The two categories are briefly explained by the court:

Civil Contempt Criminal Contempt
  • Conducts that disobeys judgment, orders, or other processes of the court.
  • Words or conducts that obstructs/ potentially obstructs/ interferes with the administration of justice.
  • The purpose is to coerce an individual to do the thing required by the order for the benefit of the complainant.
  • The purpose is to preserve the court’s authority and to punish for disobedience of its orders.
  • The punishment is remedial, and for the benefit of the complainant.
  • The punishment is punitive, and to vindicate the authority of the court.
  • Party complaining of the breach initiates the contempt proceedings.
  • The Court/ Attorney General in its own volition frames the complaint or the party with sufficient interest moves the court.  


The mere fact that an alleged act of contempt arises from a criminal proceeding does not automatically make it a criminal contempt. At the end of the day, whether a contempt is criminal or civil in nature is dependent on the classification above- it has nothing to do with the decision in the main proceedings, but what transpired during the main proceedings. 

Therefore, as an act of contempt does not necessarily mirror the civil/ criminal nature of the main proceedings, it must also mean that the contempt proceedings are also a separate and distinct proceeding from the main proceedings. This is because orders made in a course of the contempt proceedings might not have any bearing to the charge, conviction, or appeal in the main proceedings (such as what happened in the case above).


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