What is Contempt of Court?

  • It seeks to protect judicial institutions from motivated attacks and unwarranted criticism, and as a legal mechanism to punish those who lower its authority.

How did the concept of contempt come into being?

  • The concept of contempt of court is several centuries old.
  • In England, it is a common law principle that seeks to protect the judicial power of the king, initially exercised by him, and later by a panel of judges who acted in his name.
  • Violation of the judges’ orders was considered an affront to the king himself.
  • Over time, any kind of disobedience to judges, or obstruction of the implementation of their directives, or comments and actions that showed disrespect towards them came to be punishable.

What is the statutory basis for contempt of court?

  • There were pre-Independence laws of contempt in India. Besides the early High Courts, the courts of some princely states also had such laws.
  • When the Constitution was adopted, contempt of court was made one of the restrictions on freedom of speech and expression.
  • Separately, Article 129 of the Constitution conferred on the Supreme Court the power to punish contempt of itself.
  • Article 215 conferred a corresponding power on the High Courts.
  • The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, gives statutory backing to the idea.

What are the kinds of contempt of court?

The law codifying contempt classifies it as civil and criminal.

  • Civil contempt is fairly simple. It is committed when someone willfully disobeys a court order or wilfully breaches an undertaking given to the court. However, Criminal contempt is more complex.
  • It consists of three forms: (a) words, written or spoken, signs and actions that “scandalise” or “tend to scandalise” or “lower” or “tends to lower” the authority of any court (b) prejudices or interferes with any judicial proceeding and (c) interferes with or obstructs the administration of justice.
  • The rationale for this provision is that courts must be protected from tendentious attacks that lower its authority, defame its public image and make the public lose faith in its impartiality.
  • The punishment for contempt of court is simple imprisonment for a term up to six months and/or a fine of up to ₹. 2,000.

What does not account to contempt?

  • Fair and accurate reporting of judicial proceedings will not amount to contempt of court.
  • Nor is any fair criticism on the merits of a judicial order after a case is heard and disposed of.

Is truth a defence against a contempt charge?

  • For many years, the truth was seldom considered a defence against a charge of contempt.
  • There was an impression that the judiciary tended to hide any misconduct among its individual members in the name of protecting the image of the institution.
  • The Act was amended in 2006 to introduce truth as a valid defence if it was in the public interest and was invoked in a bonafide

Issues with contempt of court

The article discusses the issues that law for contempt of the court give rise to. The practice has monarchical origins. Its continuance conflicts with the ideals of democracy. 

Objective

  • The objective for contempt is stated to be to safeguard the interests of the public if the authority of the Court is denigrated and public confidence in the administration of justice is weakened or eroded.
  •  Need to “respect the authority and dignity of the court” has monarchical origins.

Issues in India

  • With adjudicatory role having been handed over to judges, showing extreme deference to judges does not sit well with the idea of a democracy.
  • But the definition of criminal contempt in India is extremely wide, and can be easily invoked.
  •  Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer famously termed the law of contempt as having a vague and wandering jurisdiction, contempt law may unwittingly trample upon civil liberties.
  • Criminal contempt is completely asynchronous with our democratic system which recognises freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right.
  • Excessively loose use of the test of ‘loss of public confidence’, combined with a liberal exercise of suo motu powers, can be dangerous.
  •  It can amount to the Court signalling that it will not suffer any kind of critical commentary about the institution at all.

Lessons from other democracies

  • Contempt has practically become obsolete in foreign democracies.
  • Canada ties its test for contempt to real, substantial and immediate dangers to the administration.
  • American courts also no longer use the law of contempt in response to comments on judges or legal matters.
  • In England, too, the legal position has evolved.

Approach of Indian judiciary

  • Truth and good faith were not recognised as valid defences until 2006, when the Contempt of Courts Act was amended.
  • Indian courts have not been inclined to display the same maturity and unruffled spirit as their peers in the other democracies.

Consider the question  “A law for criminal contempt is completely asynchronous with our democratic system which recognises freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right. Examine the issue in India context and suggest the major to strike the balance.”

Conclusion

Besides needing to revisit the need for a law on criminal contempt, even the test for contempt needs to be evaluated. If such a test ought to exist at all, it should be whether the contemptuous remarks in question actually obstruct the Court from functioning. It should not be allowed to be used as a means to prevent any and all criticism of an institution.