Nunatsiaq News
COMMENTARY: Nunavut September 29, 2016 - 4:00 pm

Legal Ease, Sept. 29

Do I have to do what the judge said?


Suppose a judge or judicial officer makes an order and you disagree with it. In fact, you are totally sure the judge or judicial officer is wrong and the order will never stand up on an appeal.

Can you just ignore the order?

No! And if you do you may well end up in jail.

An order of a court or tribunal is to be obeyed in full until and unless it is set aside. You must obey every order even if you think it is totally incorrect. (There is one minor exception we will come to later.)

First, let’s be clear what a court order is and when it comes into force.

A court order isn’t just a suggestion made by a judge. A court order is a direction by a judge to do, or to avoid from doing, something. It may be phrased informally, but it is something where the judge has made a decision.

The court order comes into force as soon as the judge says what the decision is—the fact a formal document has not been entered in the court office is irrelevant.

If, for example, a judge directs someone to return property they have improperly taken, that order dates from the moment the judge says “return it” regardless of when, if ever, the order is formally reduced to paper and filed.

Second, you have to obey the court order as it was made. The spirit of the order must be fulfilled as well as the letter—you cannot take some finicky and peculiar interpretation of what the judge has said so as to avoid doing (or not doing) what was directed. 

What happens if you do not obey a court order? You may well be found in contempt of court. And contempt of court is no trivial thing.

You are subject to paying a significant fine or going to jail until you comply with the order. Court orders are to be fulfilled even if you don’t like what they say.

So what can you do if a judge has made an order that you think is wrong? Your options are limited.

Basically you can seek to review the order and ask it to be stayed pending the review. But until (and unless) the order is stayed it must be obeyed.

Reviewing an order means either launching an appeal or, in some cases, challenging the jurisdiction of the judicial officer to make the order. In either case you have to work fast and you have limited chances of success. And remember in the meantime until you get a stay the order remains in force.

Just before finishing I should mention the one time a court order can (in theory) be ignored. Note I say “in theory” because ignoring any court order is very dangerous and I would never recommend so doing.

Suppose a judicial officer acted completely without jurisdiction. Say a Justice of the Peace purported to make an order for injunctive relief. In theory the order is void.

It is just the same as if I made an order—an order made without any jurisdiction is not an order at all. Such an order could be ignored. At least in theory. But in reality judicial officers don’t make orders without any jurisdiction—and ignoring their orders can lead to nights at BCC!

Obviously judges and judicial officers make mistakes. And when they do, appeal courts and superior courts correct the mistakes. But pending such correction, you must, must, must obey the existing court order.

James Morton is a lawyer practicing in Nunavut with offices in Iqaluit. The comments here are intended as general legal information and not as specific legal advice.

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