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Contempt of Court

The law of contempt is one of the legacies of British Raj that still holds a lot of importance. In E.M.S. Namboodripad v. T.N. Nambiar, the Supreme Court had observed that The law of contempt stems from the right of the courts to punish by imprisonment or fine to persons guilty of words or acts which either obstruct or tend to obstruct the administration of justice.

This right is exercised in India by all courts when contempt is committed in facie curiae and by the superior courts on their own behalf or on behalf of courts subordinate to them even if committed outside the courts. [1]

The Constitution of India defines Contempt of Court, as civil and criminal, under Section 2(a) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 and these two concepts are dealt with separately under Sections 2(b) and 2(c) of the same Act.

While civil contempt refers to willful, deliberate and intentional disobedience of any judgement, decree, direction, order, writ or other processes of a court or an undertaking given to the court, criminal contempt covers under its ambit the publication of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever that scandalizes or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court, or prejudices or interferes or tends to interfere with the due course of any judicial proceeding, or interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstruct or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.

History of the contempt of court act

The first statutory legislation on the Contempt of court was the Contempt of Court Act of 1926 which was overthrown by the legislation of 1952 and the final legislation that is currently in force came in 1971. Now, the Act of 1926, gave the power to punish for contempt to the High Courts of Judicature but this was not applicable to Chief Courts and Judicial Commissioner’s Court.

The next legislation that came in 1952 redefined High Courts to include the Courts of Judicial Commissioner and also granted them the powers to try courts subordinate to them for contempt. It was then realized that the Act was somewhat in conflict with the freedom of speech and expression and right to personal liberty and to deal with this a committee was set up under late H.N Sanyal, the then solicitor general of India.[2]

The recommendations of this committee gave us our current law i.e the Contempt of Court Act, 1971. It was held in the case of Shakuntala Sahadevram Tewari v. Hemchand M.Singhania[3] that the entire purpose of this Act is to maintain the dignity of the judiciary and to make sure that the administration of justice is pure and smooth.

Section 13 of the Act mentions the punishments for both civil and criminal contempt of court. Civil contempt is punishable simply with a fine unless the court feels that it would not meet the ends of the justice and criminal contempt is punishable with imprisonment up to six months or with a fine of maximum five thousand rupees or both.

However, the court may remit the punishment if the written apology submitted by the individual satisfies the required amount of repentance in the court. In the case of Haridas V. Smt. Usharani,[4] the petitioner, in his apology, kept on reiterating that whatever he asserted was right and that he could prove it. This was not accepted by the court and he was thus punished of contempt. [5]

Ambiguity and criticism
Going by the definition of criminal contempt, it is understandable that the way the term has been defined, it creates a lot of scope for ambiguity and vagueness. Again, since it is up to the court to decide whether the act committed amounted to contempt or not, the decisions in these matters vary according to the discretion of the judges and facts of the case. Eminent lawyer, Mr Fali Nariman, in the contempt case of Justice Markandey Katju, had rightly remarked that the offence of scandalising the court is a mercurial jurisdiction in which there are no rules and no constraints.

This can be easily seen in Articles 215 and 129 of the Constitution which do not put any boundaries or restrictions on either the Supreme Court or the High Court to commit for contempt. It also brings forth the tinge of uncertainty in the current legislation where it talks about how all acts, words, signs and visible representations that scandalise or prejudice or interfere with the process of justice are punishable offences. The Act nowhere clarifies or exactly specifies on what might constitute scandalising the court however. The words fail to bring out any particular meaning since, with the evolution of ideas and practices, things which might have meant to scandalise the court in the year 1971 might not mean the same thing in 2019.[6]

The 2006 amendment to the Act had introduced clause (b) under Section 13 which allowed for truth to be used as a defence in matters of contempt provided it is proved to be in public interest and a bonafide request. However, this doesn’t let the Act to be clear of all criticisms as the amendment, even though , provides for truth to be used as a defence, makes use of the clause of the court may which yet again gives the court an upper hand in deciding of whether or not truth can be used as a defence.

Limitations and famous judgements

There are two limitations mentioned in the Act under Section 20 where it has been pointed out that no court shall initiate contempt proceedings either on its own notions or otherwise after the expiry of one year from the date on which contempt is alleged to have been committed or when the proceedings of the concerned case are going on.

Other than these, there have been some famous judgements which have eventually shaped the course of this legislation and set some standard benchmarks.

In the case of Arundhati Roy[7], the Supreme Court had held that judicial criticism cannot be invoked under the garb of Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. The Court had further clarified that fair criticism of the judiciary as a whole or the conduct of a judge, in particular, may not amount to contempt if it is made in good faith and in public interest. To ascertain the 'good faith' and 'public interest' the Courts have to take into consideration all the surrounding circumstances including the person's knowledge in the field of law, the intention behind the comment and the purpose sought to be achieved. A common citizen cannot be permitted to comment upon the Courts in the name of criticism by seeking the help of Freedom of speech and expression for the reason that if it is not checked, it would destroy the judicial institution itself. 

In the case of P.N. Duda V. V.P. Shiv Shankar and Ors.[8], the court had clearly mentioned that the individual criticism of the judges would not attempt to contempt of court and nothing said would count as contempt of court unless it hampers the course of administration of natural justice.

In the case of R. Rajgopal V. State of T.N.[9] (the Auto Shankar case) it was observed, the public must be open to strict comments and accusations as long as made with bonafide diligence, even if it is untrue. This is known as the doctrine of John Sullivan and was put to use by Justice Jeevan Reddy in this case.

Even though the existing Act of Contempt of Court seems to be extremely unreasonable and unfair at times, it serves to protect the dignity of the Indian Judiciary System and maintain its superiority and is extremely necessary. The various provisions of this legislation do come in conflict with the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, the Fundamental Rights among various other judgements and interpretations of the courts and this creates a lot of confusion.

But I feel, with the changing times, the new judicial opinions and case laws would help us get a better understanding of the law and help to change it to suit the needs of the time accordingly. As citizens, it is important for us to have faith in the judicial system to help it perform its duty in the truest sense.


  1. The contempt of courts act, 1971: a critique,,(November 8, 2019, 8:00PM
  2. Amanat Raza, Contempt of Court,, (November 8, 2019, 10:00 PM).
  3. Shakuntala Sahadevram Tewari v. Hemchand M.Singhania 1990 (3) BomCR 82.
  4. Appeal (civil) 7948 of 2004.
  5. Vidhi Kumar, Contempt of Court: Analysis,, (November 9, 2019, 11:00PM).
  6. Supra note 2.
  7. In Re: Arundhati Roy…. … vs — on, 2002 AIR (SCW) 1210.
  8. P.N. Duda vs V. P. Shiv Shankar & Others, 1988 AIR 1208.
  9. R. Rajagopal vs State Of T.N, 1995 AIR 264.

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