Contempt: Court fixes May 25 for judgment as Lighthouse fails to file submissions

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 An Accra high court has set May 25, 2023, to deliver judgment in the contempt case brought by Lighthouse Chapel International (LCI) against six of its former pastors. The pastors have accused the church of a plethora of wrongdoings, ranging from economic exploitation to abuse in another suit. They resigned and sued the church in 2021.

The pastors’ story was published by The Fourth Estate shortly after they filed their suit seeking justice for the non-payment of their Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT) contributions, alleged underpayment of their salaries, and emotional abuse among others.

Lighthouse filed a contempt of court against the six pastors, and the judgment was supposed to be delivered on April 28, 2023. Justice Frank Aboagye Rockson had ordered the two parties to file their submission by March 29, 2023, but when the case was called on Friday, it came to light that the church had failed to file its written submission.

Neither the church nor its lawyers were in court when the case was called.

The judge asked the lawyer for the respondents (the six former LCI pastors) if he had been served with the submissions.

“No, my lord. I haven’t,” the lawyer, Mr. Kofi Bentil, said.

Asked about the last time the court sat on the matter, Mr. Bentil said it was March 15, 2023, and added that the judge had ordered that the parties should file their submissions by March 29, 2023.

After combing through his documents, the judge agreed with Mr. Bentil and stated that the respondents had filed their written submissions as ordered by the court.

“Under the circumstances, a date would be given for the ruling based on what is so far before me,” the judge said before assigning May 25, 2023, as the judgment day.

Mr. Bentil asked that the court award a cost of GHc 3,000 against the church for failing to do the needful.

The court agreed.

Background

LCI’s case

The LCI’s claims that the respondents are in contempt of court for three reasons. It said the six former pastors of the church gave interviews to The Fourth Estate, which were published, and that the pastors did not include all the details of these interviews in their court filings. The church also said The Fourth Estate publications cast the church in a negative light.

The church brought a contempt suit against The Fourth Estate for publishing the articles. The Fourth Estate was found guilty but has appealed the judgment. The church also wants its former employees punished for contempt.

Ingredients of contempt

In his written submission to the court, Counsel for the former LCI pastors, Kofi Bentil, argued that the act of contempt of court in Ghana requires specific elements that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. These, he said, include intentional disobedience of court orders or denigration of the court, both inside or outside of the courtroom during ongoing legal proceedings. Additionally, it must be shown that the accused had the intention to commit contempt and acted accordingly.

To be held in contempt of a court in Ghana, the lawyer further said, the accused must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have conceived and acted in a way that defied or disobeyed the orders of a court, or in a way that denigrated the court either in the face of the court or outside the court during a period when the court is adjudicating the issue in contention.

Mr. Bentil argued that contempt of court was a conduct that undermined the authority and dignity of a court, defined as the crime of disobeying a court order or showing disrespect to a judge. He said that to be found guilty of contempt, there must be a court seized with the matter.

According to court documents, the respondents contend that contempt of court is typically only applied to actions that happen after a court has started dealing with a case. This is because it requires serious and clear actions that violate the law. He said in this particular case, the applicants (the church) had not provided sufficient evidence to prove such actions, and the respondents had not behaved badly enough to warrant this severe punishment.

He said: “It is extremely pertinent to note that in this court, My Lord the Judge had occasion to admonish the parties and charge them to stay out of the media circus surrounding this case. In that admonishment, My Lord the Judge commended the parties for restraining themselves so far. What is pertinent here is that this admonishment and commendation came after the publication of Darkness in a Lighthouse. Witness for Applicant admitted recollecting this admonishment. It stands to reason therefore that as would be expected of a court, this court had not considered the events before that date as contemptuous, and was proceeding with the matter before it, not matters outside the court.”

The respondents claim that they had tried to settle the issues with their employer outside of court, but their attempts were unsuccessful. The Fourth Estate got wind of it and approached them for interviews, which they gave. These interviews, they said, happened before they decided to take legal action against the church.

Court is not scandalised, disrupted, thwarted

“Respondents did everything to avoid court action because the applicant herein is far better resourced than them, but when all failed, instead of giving up, and with the support of friends and family, they ran to the law. It is not true that they were bent on coming to court,” the six pastors said in their defence.

“Respondents, therefore, have no doubt that this court is not scandalised, disrupted, thwarted nor tormented by the contents of interviews given long before writs were filed and would not consider them as contemptuous of this court, because it is clear about what is before it and what is not, and would not be prejudiced by extraneous matters,” Mr. Bentil said in the court document.

Furthermore, the respondents said the church was aggrieved that the interviews cast it in bad light and wished to project their displeasure and discomfort onto the court and suggest that the court was offended and had experienced contempt because applicants were offended.

“We are confident this court appreciates the media interest around this case, but will not assume the pain of parties herein, or turn the displeasure of parties into its own and declare contempt when a party is displeased with external issues unless the conduct is truly contemptuous and not a strained effort to stretch the law of contempt to fight partisan battles,” they argued.

Asking the court to dismiss the case and award cost against the church, Mr. Bentil argued that the applicants [the church] were asking the court to be offended on their behalf and punish the respondents (the six former LCI pastors) for conduct that they believe is disrespectful.

Editor’s Note: Beyond proceedings in court on Friday, this story also relied on the written submission filed by the respondents. The Church failed to file its submission so that information is not available to this media outlet. The story will be updated if the applicant (the Lighthouse Chapel) files its submission.

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