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ANTWI v. AMPONSAH AND ANOTHER


  • New
  • 1961-12-04
  • HIGH COURT
  • GLR 751 756
  • Print

OLLENNU, J.


Summary

Contempt of courtcommissioner threatens to detain plaintiff if he does not withdraw suit pending in courtcontempt of court. [p.752]

Headnotes

The plaintiff-applicant instituted a suit in the High Court, Accra, against the Odikro of Sagyimase, near Kibi, and one other person for declaration of title to a piece of land and for damages for trespass. The district commissioner for Kibi on one of his official visits to Sagyimase, which is within his area of administration, called the plaintiff and threatened that if he did not discontinue the suit, but on the contrary prosecuted it to a conclusion, he would cause him to be arrested and detained under the Preventive Detention Act, 1958 (No. 17 of 1958). The plaintiff applied to the court for an order for attachment of the district commissioner for contempt of court.

Judgement

RULING on an application for attachment for contempt of court.

The applicant is plaintiff in a suit, No. L.135/60, which was pending in this court in March, 1961. The respondent is the district commissioner in charge of the Kibi district, which includes the village of Sagyimase, eight miles away from Kibi. On the 21st March, 1961, the respondent paid a visit to Sagyimase village in his official capacity. The incidents which have led to the present proceedings took place on the occasion of that official visit.

The acts of the respondent which are relied upon to sustain this application to commit him for contempt of court are set out in paragraph 15 of the affidavit of the applicant filed on the 2nd May, 1961, and are that the respondent on that occasion threatened the applicant as follows:

"Know you that I am the district commissioner and I represent the Government. You should discontinue the case you have brought against Mankrado Kwabena Amponsah and Opanin Yaw Afum in the High Court, Accra, otherwise whether you win the case or not I shall cause you to be arrested and detained under the Preventive Detention Act."

The first question is whether the respondent did offer those threats. Evidence was led by the applicant and his witnesses that the respondent offered the threats alleged, and other threats. Those other threats being to the applicant and six other persons.

The respondent denied uttering those threatening words, and alleged that all that happened on the occasion was that in a welcome address [p.753] given to him on his said visit, the Odikro of the village had mentioned the names of the applicant and six others as persons who, though they attend at, do not take part in, communal labour in connection with self-help projects of the village, and had asked him as district commissioner to advise those seven men to co-operate with the other villagers to carry out the self-help projects.

Counsel for the respondent spent much time in cross-examination. The line of cross-examination when taken together with paragraph 4 of the affidavit of the respondent filed on the 19th June, 1961, make it appear that the respondent had had some report about the applicant and the other six men before he went to the village on the date in question, and that it was not from the address of the Odikro that he first got to know of the seven men. The said paragraph 4 of the respondent's affidavit reads as follows:

"I then addressed the people and told them that if they embarked on development work in the town by communal labour the Government would give them all encouragement and assistance; that I had received reports that some of them were not participating in or contributing to the communal labour effort; etc."

Counsel for the applicant who came into the case at the last moment, quite contrary to what the applicant and his witnesses had maintained, also cross-examined on lines to show that the main point in the respondent's address was that the applicant and the other six persons were not co-operative, or not co-operating fully in the performance of communal labour.

On the issue of fact there are two witnesses who impressed me very highly; they are the third witness for the applicant, Madam Abena Ampofowaa, the wife of the applicant, and Paul Oduro, the second witness for the respondent, and the C.P.P. chairman of Sagyimase. In the case of Abena Ampofowaa I would point out that the more strenuous the effort made to discredit her the more effective she was made to appear to the court as a most truthful witness. When recalled upon the application of counsel for the respondent she was able to explain satisfactorily and honestly points in her former evidence which might have impeached her credibility.

Paul Oduro said the applicant and the six men contributed their full share to communal labour in the town, and there was no complaint and no question on the occasion of the respondent's visit about those seven men not pulling their weight; and that the complaint against them had to do with quite a different matter, namely that the seven of them are leaders of the United Party, a party opposed to the C.P.P., which comprised the majority of the villagers; they, the seven men themselves were at one time members of the C.P.P., and what the respondent was requested to do, was to get them round, to reconcile them with the leaders of the C.P.P. The fact is further borne out by the proceedings which took place inside the Methodist Church whither the respondent had invited the seven men and the leaders of the C.P.P. after the public meeting. The respondent said quite frankly that part of his assignment as a district commissioner is to carry out a membership drive for his party and to win [p.754] all the people or as many people in his district as possible into his party; quite a legitimate duty, provided he did not use improper means to coerce people to join his said party. I accept that evidence of Paul Oduro.

Now what means did the respondent adopt in dealing with the situation. In this regard I refer to a very pertinent statement made by counsel for the respondent. Objection was taken to the line he adopted in cross-examining the second witness for the applicant as one which might lead to the witness being exposed to detention under the Preventive Detention Act. In reply to that objection counsel said, inter alia: "The purpose of this line of my cross-examination is to show that what was done on the occasion was to teach those people some sense; by those people I mean the witness and his companions, i.e. the applicant and the others." Teach the applicant and the six others some sense! In other words drive fear into them; and that is exactly what appears upon the evidence to have happened. The balance of the probabilities is overwhelmingly in favour of the applicant's version. I accept the evidence of Abena Ampofowaa, the evidence of the applicant and of his other witnesses, that the respondent did threaten the applicant and the six others together, and did threaten the applicant alone as alleged. We are not in these proceedings concerned with the threats he offered generally to all the seven men. We are concerned only with the threat as to what would happen to the applicant if he insisted upon prosecuting his land suit in this court to the end, successfully or unsuccessfully.

Do those threats constitute contempt of court? For an act to be contempt of court it must be calculated to bring a court or judge into contempt, or to lower his authority, or to interfere with the due course of justice, or the lawful process of the court; see Halsbury's Laws of England, (3rd. ed.) Vol. 8, p. 7, and R. v. Gray.1 Bowen, L.J. in the case of Helmore v. Smith2 laid down the test to be applied; he said:

"The object of the discipline enforced by the Court in case of contempt of Court is not to vindicate the dignity of the Court or the person of the Judge, but to prevent undue interference with the administration of justice. The question, therefore, here is whether there has been an interference with the administration of justice."3

I interpret the principle laid down in that case to mean that improper conduct by itself is not enough to constitute contempt. The act or conduct must be of such a nature as would unduly interfere with the administration of justice, i.e. prevent the court from, or make it impossible for it to exercise jurisdiction in a case, or if it exercises the jurisdiction it leads to miscarriage of justice. Counsel for the applicant cited the case of Balogun & Ors. v. Edusei & Anor.4 In that case persons against whom deportation orders had been made as aliens applied to the High Court for habeas corpus on the grounds that they were Ghana citizens and therefore not [p.755] subject to deportation order. While their said application was pending they were put on the plane and removed from the jurisdiction of the court, thereby the court was prevented from adjudicating on the matter and from doing justice. The applicants were prepared to prosecute their claim, and the court being seized of the matter was in duty bound to exercise its jurisdiction. It was held that the act of the respondents in that case amounted to contempt.

Again there is the case of Smith v. Lakeman.5 The facts in that case are briefly as follows: the plaintiff sued the defendant for investigation of accounts the details of which were not known to anyone besides the plaintiff and the defendant. The plaintiff wrote an anonymous letter to the defendant threatening him that if he attended the court to contest the claim "he would at once be indicted for swindling, perjury and forgery." It was held that the threats in that case constituted contempt of court. In my opinion the ground for that decision is that if the defendant failed to appear to contest the claim as he might well do in consequence of the threats, the court would be prevented thereby from hearing both sides in the case, it would only hear the plaintiff's version and base its judgment entirely upon that, and thereby grave miscarriage of justice would be the only result.

On the other hand, where a yearly tenant holding a tenancy for life sued a local authority for trespass, and the tenant for life contacted the local authority for settlement, and his solicitor wrote to the yearly tenant that his tenancy would be forfeited if he did not withdraw his action against the local authority, the solicitor was held not to have committed contempt of court, because although forfeiting the tenancy of the yearly tenant would take away his right to prosecute his claim, that would not interfere with the court's administration of justice nor would it lead to a miscarriage of justice; the court would not be obliged to give judgment on the merits.

Now briefly put, the threats which the district commissioner offered are: you should withdraw your action now pending in the court; if you insist upon prosecuting it, you might well do so, but then whether you win or lose the case, I shall have you detained for disobeying my directions or orders.

The question is: if the applicant did not turn up at the trial to prosecute his claim will that interfere with administration of justice? Is a court bound to hear a case once it is instituted even if the plaintiff declines of his own accord to prosecute it? In my opinion there will be no interference with administration of justice, if the plaintiff elects not to attend court. It would be a different matter if the person threatened is a witness and not a party, for the absence of the witness would interfere with the court proceedings with that case, since the party who called that witness would be unable to put the full facts of his case before the court and that would be interference with the administration of justice. Again, there is no counterclaim in the case, in such a way that if the applicant withdrew [p.756] his own claim and failed to turn up at the trial of the counterclaim judgment which might amount to miscarriage of justice might be obtained against him in his absence.

In my opinion, however improper the conduct of the respondent was, his threats did not amount to undue interference with the administration of justice, and was not calculated to interfere with the due course of justice. The application is dismissed with costs.

Decision

<P>Application dismissed.</P>

Plaintiff / Appellant

de Graft Johnson

Defendant / Respondent

P.A. Adjetey

Referals

(1) R. v. Gray [1900] 2 Q.B. 36

(2) Helmore v. smith (1887) 35 Ch. D.449, C.A.

(3) Balogun & Ors. v. Edusei & Anor. (1958) 3 W.A.L.R. 547

(4) Smith v. Lakeman (1857) 26 L.J. Ch. 305

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