Contempt of Court


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    • Recently, the Supreme Court (SC) stated that its power to punish for contempt under Article 129 is a constitutional power, which cannot be done away with even by any law.

    About Contempt of Court

    • Meaning: 
      • Contempt of court, as a concept that seeks to protect judicial institutions from motivated attacks and unwarranted criticism, and as a legal mechanism to punish those who lower its authority. 
      • This follows the initiation of contempt proceedings by the Supreme Court of India, on its own motion.
    • Origin:
      • The concept 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 himself, 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. Later, any disobedience against judges and/or disrespect towards them or their order became punishable. 
    • Statutory Basis:
      • 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.
    • A suo motu action:
      • The prior consent of the Attorney General (AG) of India is not required to suo motu initiate the inherent contempt powers of the Supreme Court.
        • The Contempt of Court Act of 1971 cannot limit this power of the court. The statute only provides the procedure in which such contempt is to be initiated.
      • The suo motu contempt powers of the top court are drawn from Article 129 of the Constitution, which says the Supreme Court, as a court of record, has the power to punish for contempt of itself.
    • Two Types of Contempt: 
      • Civil Contempt
        • It is committed when someone wilfully disobeys a court order, or wilfully breaches an undertaking given to court. 
      • Criminal Contempt 
        • 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.

    • Objective:
      • 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.
    • Punishment:
      • 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.
    • 2006 Amendment:
      • For many years, “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 public interest and was invoked in a bona fide manner.

    Arguments in Favour of retaining the contempt provision

    • Increasing instances of Contempt and scandalising: 
      • The high number of cases justify the continuing relevance of the contempt of court law.
    • Maintained supremacy of law:
      • The recognition of contempt of court and to punish for contempt is essential for a nation such as India which is based on the concept of rule of law, which requires supremacy of law, since the judiciary is considered, as the last bastion of hope and justice for the citizens of any nation.
    • Constitutional Source of Contempt Power: 
      • Supreme Court and High Courts derive their contempt powers from the Constitutional Articles 129 and 215. 
      • Therefore, deletion of the offence from the Act will not impact the inherent constitutional powers of the superior courts to punish anyone for its contempt.
    • Sine qua non aspects: 
      • Trust, faith and confidence of the citizens in the judiciary is sine qua non for the existence of Rule of Law.
    • Impact on Subordinate Courts: 
      • The Contempt of Court Act additionally allows the High Court to punish for contempt of subordinate courts. 
      • Thus, if the definition of contempt is removed, subordinate courts will suffer as there will be no remedy to address cases of their contempt.
    • Maintain administration of judiciary:
      • Civil contempt is necessary as wilful disobedient litigants who ignore the orders of the court cannot be let-off otherwise it would seriously affect the administration of justice and trust of people in the judiciary.
    • Ambiguity: 
      • If there is no definition for criminal contempt in the Act, superior courts may give multiple definitions and interpretations to what constitutes contempt.  The Commission suggested retaining the definition for the purpose of ensuring clarity.
    • Adequate Safeguards: 
      • The Law Commission noted that there are several safeguards built into the Act to protect against its misuse. 
      • For instance, the Act contains provisions which lay down cases that do not amount to contempt and cases where contempt is not punishable. 
      • These provisions suggest that the courts will not prosecute all cases of contempt.

    Image Courtesy: Today

    Arguments against retaining the contempt provision

    • Against Civil Liberties (Article 19 & 21): 
      • A law for criminal contempt gets in conflict with India’s democratic system which recognises freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right. 
    • Violating the Doctrine of Overbreadth:
      • The language defining criminal contempt is vague enough to encompass within its sweep legitimate criticism as well.
    • Wide Scope of Contempt: 
      • The definition of criminal contempt in India is extremely wide, and can be easily invoked. 
      • Further, the Contempt of Courts Act was amended in 2006, to add truth and good faith as valid defences for contempt, but it is seldom entertained by the judiciary.
    • Supreme Court judgement: 
      • In S.Mugolkar v. Unknown (1978), the Supreme Court held that the judiciary cannot be immune from fair criticism, and contempt action is to be used only when an obvious misstatement with malicious intent seeks to bring down public confidence in the courts or seeks to influence the courts.
    • No one to be own judge:
      • Does not recognise one of the basic principles of natural justice, i.e., no man shall be a judge in his own cause.
      • Thus, in contempt proceedings, the court arrogates to itself the powers of a judge, jury and executioner which often leads to perverse outcomes.

    Way Ahead

    • The Law Commission of India held that there is a need to retain the provision regarding the contempt of courts. 
    • However, it also recommended the definition of contempt in the Contempt of Court Act should be restricted to civil contempt, i.e., willful disobedience of judgments of the court.

    Contempt laws in other countries:

    • Already, contempt has practically become obsolete in foreign democracies, with jurisdictions recognising that it is an archaic law, designed for use in a bygone era, whose utility and necessity has long vanished.
      • Canada ties its test for contempt to real, substantial and immediate dangers to the administration.
      • American courts no longer use the law of contempt in response to comments on judges or legal matters.
      • In England, the legal position has evolved.


    Source: IE