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A Comprehensive Overview Of Contempt Of Court Act, 1971

The word "Contempt" means the state of being despised or dishonoured and the word "Court" means a place where legal trials take place and justice is administered. So, simply the Contempt of Court means an act which dishonours or lowers the dignity of the Court.

The work of administering justice is a divine work which is done by courts by passing orders in the interest of justice therefore it is very essential that the dignity and respect of the court shall be preserved and everyone in the country should have high regard for courts.

For the purpose of maintaining the respect and dignity of the court several laws or legislations are enacted in India to make the act of disrespecting or disobeying the court punishable like "The Contempt Of Courts Act, 1971 ACT NO. 70 OF 1971."

Contempt of Court or simply Contempt is of two types:
Civil Contempt and Criminal Contempt as mentioned in section 2(a) of The Contempt Of Courts Act, 1971.

Civil Contempt is committed by anyone who willfully and intentionally disobeys the court's orders and directions thereby disrespecting the Honourable Court.

Civil Contempt as defined in section 2(b) of The Contempt Of Courts Act, 1971 is as follows- " wilful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court."

Criminal Contempt is committed when anyone scandalises the court or lowers its authority or prejudices or interferes with the due course of any judicial proceedings or obstructs the administration of justice in any matter, by means of spoken or written words, by signs, visual representation or by other means.

Criminal Contempt according to section 2(c) of the Act is as follows:
The publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which:
  1. scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or
  2. prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or
  3. interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner;

Constitutional Provisions
Article 129: The Supreme Court shall be a court of record and The Supreme Court shall have all the power to punish contempt of itself.

Article 215: The High Court shall be a court of record and High Courts shall have all the power to punish contempt of itself.

In Delhi Judicial Service.. vs State Of Gujarat And Ors. (1991) the Supreme Court observed that:
Article 129 provides that the Supreme Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself. Article 215 contains a similar provision in respect of the High Court. Both the Supreme Court as well as High Courts are courts of record having powers to punish for contempt including the power to punish for contempt of itself. The Constitution does not define "Court of Record". This expression is well recognized in juridical world.

Contempt not punishable in certain cases:
Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression and in a democracy freedom of the press plays a very vital role therefore reporting and publishing criticism of courts which is fair and does not undermine the dignity of the court shall not amount to Contempt of Court and these exceptions are incorporated in the act itself.

In Hari Singh Nagra vs. Kapil Sibal, (2011) ( 8_piv.pdf), the Supreme Court held that there is no manner of doubt that freedom of expression as contemplated by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution is available to the Press and to criticize a judgment fairly albeit fiercely is no crime but a necessary right. A fair and reasonable criticism of a judgment which is a public document or which is a public act of a Judge concerned with the administration of justice would not constitute contempt.

Section 3 of the Act states that the publication and distribution of any subject matter done with no ulterior motive but with sheer innocence cannot be considered contempt of court. They could be an exception to contempt of court. Thus, the following actions or statements could not be accounted as contempt of court -

Reporting of Fair Judicial Proceedings and Fair Criticism of Judicial Act (U/S 4 and 5):
A person cannot be held guilty of Contempt of Court for publishing a fair and accurate report of Judicial Proceedings and publication of fair and positive criticism of Judicial Act shall not constitute Contempt of Court under the act.

Statement Against presiding officer in good faith (U/S 6):
Any statement against the presiding officer of a subordinate court in good faith cannot amount to contempt of court. Subordinate Court means any court subordinate to the High Court.

Fair Reporting of In-Camera Court Proceedings (U/S 7):
No person shall be guilty of Contempt of Court for publishing a fair and accurate reporting of in-camera judicial proceedings, unless:
  1. The publication is contrary to the provisions of any enactment for the time being in force,
  2. The publication of information relating to the proceedings is prohibited on grounds of public policy.
  3. The publication of information is related to the proceedings of the court which is connected with public order or security of the state.
  4. The publication of information is related to a secret process, discovery or invention.
  5. Power of High Court (U/S 10 and 11):
    To punish Contempt of Subordinate Court (U/S 10):
    Every High Court has and exercises the same power, authority and jurisdiction in accordance with the same procedure, in respect of contempt of the courts subordinate to it as it has and exercises in respect of contempt of itself but the High Court shall not take cognizance of Contempt of a Subordinate court, if such contempt is an offence punishable under the Indian Penal Code,1860.

    To try offences committed and offenders found beyond jurisdiction (U/S 11):
    A High Court has the power to inquire or try Contempt of itself or any other subordinate court even if the contempt is alleged to have been committed within or outside the local limits of its jurisdiction or the person alleged to be guilty of contempt is within or outside such limits.
  6. Contempt Committed in the presence of Supreme Court or High Court (U/S 14):
    As per section 14(1) of the Act when the court is of the view that contempt has been committed in its presence or during its hearing then the court may cause that person to be detained in custody and the person detained shall be informed in writing with the Contempt with which he is charged and shall also be given an opportunity to make his defence.

    As per section 14(2) of the Act when a person is guilty of committing Contempt of Court in the presence of the Court or during the hearing of the Supreme Court or High Court then the alleged accused guilty of contempt shall not be tried by the same judge in whose presence the contempt is alleged to have been committed.
  7. Criminal Contempt committed not in presence of Court (U/S 15):
    When a criminal contempt is committed not in the presence of court then the Supreme Court or High Court may take an action on its own or on a motion made by the Advocate General or any other person with the consent in writing of the Advocate General.

    In case of criminal contempt of a subordinate court, the High Court may take an action on reference made to it by the subordinate court or on a motion which is made by the Advocate General.
  8. Contempt committed by judge or magistrate (U/S 16):
    The provisions of this Act shall also apply to judges and magistrates and they shall also be liable for contempt of their own court or any other court in the same way as any other individual provided that any observation or remark made by a judge or magistrate regarding a subordinate court in an appeal or revision against the order or judgment of the subordinate court pending before the judge or magistrate shall not amount to contempt of court.
  9. Hearing of Criminal Contempt (U/S 18):
    Every case of criminal contempt (u/s 15) shall not be heard by a bench of less than two judges.
  10. Limitations for taking action (Section 20):
    No Court shall initiate any proceedings against the alleged accused if one year has passed since the date on which the Contempt of Court is alleged to have been committed.

Punishment for committing Contempt of Court (U/S 12):
A contempt of court shall be punished with an imprisonment which may extend to six months or with a fine which may extend to two thousand rupees or with both provided that the accused may be discharged or the punishment awarded may be remitted on a bonafide apology being made to the satisfaction of the Court. The apology shall be made in a good faith and it should be made at the earliest opportunity possible which satisfies the court for the punishment to be remitted and the apology should not merely be made for escaping the punishment.

In Mulkh Raj vs State Of Punjab (1972) the four judges bench of the Supreme Court observed that "Apology is an act of contrition. Unless apology is offered at the earliest opportunity and in good grace apology is shorn of penitence. If apology is offered at a time when the contemner finds that the Court is going to impose punishment it ceases to be an apology and it becomes an act of a cringing coward. "

Contempt of Court Act,1971 is indeed very important legislation to punish those who interfere in the administration of justice and undermine the dignity of the court but this legislation should be used wisely. In present times fair criticism of the judicial system and judges should be welcomed unless the criticism is of such a nature that it hampers the administration of justice. Rights and duties always go hand in hand if one has a fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression then he shall also have a sense of duty towards maintaining the dignity of the court which is very essential for the proper functioning of the judicial system.

On the other hand, this act should be used rationally and should not be misused for false implication of people who never wilfully intended to disrespect the court as this will make people lose faith in the judicial system of the country. The work of providing justice is indeed a divine task which is performed by the judiciary therefore any sort of prejudice should never exist while administering justice and punishing for contempt.

The Hon'ble Supreme Court in Rajesh Kumar Singh vs High Court of Judicature of Madhya Appeal (2001) was concerned over growing popular perception about the judges being over-sensitive in contempt matters, the Supreme Court released a note of caution that misuse of contempt jurisdiction could erode the public confidence in the judiciary.

The Supreme Court also warned that the power of the judiciary lies not in deciding cases, nor in imposing sentences, nor in punishing for contempt, but in trust, confidence and faith of the common man. The purpose of the power to punish for contempt is to ensure that the faith and confidence of the public in the administration of justice is not eroded.

Written By: Sarthak Awasthi, Student at Bharati Vidyapeeth New Law College, Pune.

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