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It appears that a judge in their courtroom can ask anyone any questions. A quick search shows that it is not uncommon for persons refusing to answer judges' questions to be prosecuted for contempt of court, but most of those persons (if not all) are subpoenaed witnesses.

This question is about everyone else in the courtroom apart from the witnesses (and let's exclude the defendant too to avoid being sidetracked by self-incrimination laws e.g. The Fifth Amendment): prosecutors/plaintiffs, lawyers, experts, members of the public etc.: do they break any laws if they refuse to answer a question from the judge?

So far I have found that, in the US, lawyers can be fined for that.

In New Zealand, the relevant upcoming law deals with disobeying "Certain court orders and undertakings" but it does not look like arbitrary questions asked by judges fall into that bucket.

  • Which country are you asking about? – Solomon Ucko Jan 14 at 3:13
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    @SolomonUcko Primarily New Zealand, but I reckon the answer won't differ much across common law countries so would be interested to hear about any of them. – Greendrake Jan 14 at 5:25
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Contempt of court generally makes it an offence for anybody to show disrespect for the judge, or to disobey a lawful order (which would presumably include refusing to answer a lawful question). This is an intrinsic part of the court's authority, and does not depend on statute. Non-legal questions, or questions that go beyond the judge's authority, presumably should not incur the penalty, but the fact remains that the judge is supreme in his courtroom, and if he orders you to be sanctioned for contempt, the sanction will take effect.

(I make no claim to be an authority on the law of contempt, certainly in New Zealand; but I was in an adjacent courtroom some twenty years ago when an English Deputy Judge, feeling he was being shown insufficient respect on his first day, ordered a barrister taken to the cells for contempt in turning his back on the judge without asking permission. The Court of Appeal, hastily convened that afternoon, did not overrule the order, since only those present could know whether sufficient respect had been shown. It did, however, decide that an apology to the Appeal Court was sufficient to purge the contempt and allow release.)

  • A fuller explanation in this answer by cpast. – Tim Lymington supports Monica Jan 7 at 13:37
  • Thanks this is shedding some light but I am looking for a answer more focused on whether/how "refusing to answer a lawful question" constitutes disobeying a lawful order, and also how to tell "lawful" questions from the judge from unlawful ones. In New Zealand, refusing to give answer by witnesses is a codified offence which makes me infer that a similar sanction on non-witnesses, should the judge endeavor to impose one, would be easily overruled on appeal. How does this inference stand? – Greendrake Jan 7 at 21:23
  • I'm not convinced by your inference:the Senior Courts Act makes it an offence for "any person to disobey a direction of the court", for example. "Whether you want to or not, I order you to answer the question" (a not unusual sentence to a witness, and possible to somebody else) would seem to answer your first point. As to whether any specific question is lawful; I don't know but the judge's direction indicates prima facie that it is. – Tim Lymington supports Monica Jan 7 at 22:29
  • I completely missed s165 of the Senior Courts Act 2016 — thanks! It basically gives the answer which boils down to "without lawful excuse". So, if the person being asked believes there is a lawful excuse to refuse to answer, but the judge insists and holds them in contempt, it will be then up to the appellate court to resolve the matter. – Greendrake Jan 7 at 23:01
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If you recall a few months back when the US Olympic Gymnastics doctor was being sentanced for molesting his female patients, one father of two victims decided to jump the barrier between the audience and the floor... not sure of the technical term... and attempt to assault the doctor. A baliff quickly restrained him, and while she ultimately did not press the matter given the nature of the motivations of the man, she did point out it was contempt of court and that she wouldn't press the matter if he never returned to the court room during this particular case (she did allow him to watch from the overflow room that had been set up for the press).

In the U.S. at least, Contempt of Court is a rather unusual in the crime in that it is a bench trial offense (meaning the Judge tries the case), making the Judge in your contempt case triple hated as the Judge, Jury, and Complaining Witness to the crime. And U.S. Judges are notoriously territorial about their courtrooms.

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    I can't see how this addresses the question. Jumping around the courtroom is a very different thing from politely but firmly objecting a question and refusing to give an answer. – Greendrake Jan 7 at 21:29

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