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(From the Wellington Evening Post.) The Ashburton “ contempt of Court” case was brought under the notice of the Minister of Justice last Wednesday by Mr. Stewart, in the form of a question put in the House of Representatives. The Minister’s answer to the query was perhaps what might have been expected under the circumstances ; but as the matter will probably be'heard of again, ■we shall for the present refrain from commenting upon its details. It may, however, be observed that there appears to be a “ screw loose ” in the administration of the Resident Magistrate’s Court at Ashburton. During the last twelve months frequent complaints about it have been published in the local newspapers, and but a short time ago we reported the case of a laboring man, of respectable character, who was sentenced by Mx\ Guinness, the Ashburton Resident Magistrate, to three months’ imprisonment with hard labor because at about 11 o’clock one night he knocked at the door of the wrong house by mistake, going away as soon as he discovered his error. Fortunately, he had friends, who enabled him to appeal from the conviction, winch was promptly quashed by Judge Johnston, who pronounced it to be a “ monstrous” one. As to Mr. Purnell’s case,, it has, like all cases of the kind, wider bearings than any wrong which the individual may have suffered. It is evident that if, whenever a dispute occurs between a Resident Magistrate and one of the counsel pleading before him, the Magistrate is to enforce his opinion by summarily sending the counsel off to prison, our gaols -will speedily be filled, and the few- counsel left to plead in the Magistrates’ Courts will certainly not be the most high-minded of the profession. Nor does (t muck mend the matter if the counsel has indulged in indiscreet' doiqness of speech. The most brilliant members of the bar occasionally use language in Court which, strictly speaking, cannot be defended ; but the paramount importance of keeping the bar independent of the Bench, so that it may enforce the rights of suitors to the utmost limits which the law allows, outweighs the comparatively petty considerations of wounded feelings on the part of Magistrates and Judges. Wise Magistrates and Judges do not regard as a personal affront every bold expression which may be used in the heat of forensic controversy ; and they take care not to place themselves and the bar in such a position that neither can retreat without loss of dignity. Our Supreme Court Judges, as a rule, have shown no lack of discretion in this respect; but “ scenes ” are unhappily not infrequent in the courts of our country Magistrates. The cause, we apprehend, is to be found in the fact that but few of these gentlemen have received a legal education. The late AttorneyGeneral went so far as to say that “ when a man is not fit for anything else they make him a Resdent Magistrate.” This is a great truth, clothed in the Eastern language. The natural result of such appointments is that the appointees enter upon their duties with, at the best, an imperfect knowledge of the practice of their own Courts, and are pretty sure, sooner or later, to come into collision with the lawyers, who can scarcely be expected to feel the same respect for such Magistrates as they do for competent Judges. “ Scenes in Court.” are doubtless interesting from one point of view, but they do not enhance public respect for the administration of justice; still less do committments for contempt. A. Magistrate, of course, has very limited powersof committmentforthis offence, unlike the Supreme Court Judges, whose powers of punishing for contempt are inherent and virtually unlimited ; but still he has powers of this kind. The right to use them freely, however, is not a logical consequence of their existence. In any Court, they should be used only as a last resort, and with the utmost care. It may indeed fairly be questioned whether such arbitrary powers should be vested at all in the presiding officers of our inferior Courts. It is a violent inroad upon the ordinary principles which guide the administration of justice' that even a Supreme Court Judge should possess both the right to decide whether he has beeix insulted or not, and also to award the punishment to be inflicted for the offence ; but it becomes simply outi’ageous when such a formidable weapon of arbitrary power is put into the hand of a Resident Magistrate, whose sole qualification for office is, possibly, the fact that ho has enjoyed sufficient political influence to get the appointment.

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Bibliographic details

Ashburton Guardian, Ashburton Guardian, Volume 1, Issue 134, 3 August 1880

Word Count

CONTEMPT OF COURT. Ashburton Guardian, Volume 1, Issue 134, 3 August 1880