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Contempt of Court

In general terms, contempt of court is the conduct that disrespects or insults the authority or dignity of a court. It can takes place either in the presence of court i.e. directly or outside the presence of court i.e. indirectly. In short, it is an offence of showing disrespects towards the dignity or authority of court. A judge may impose sanctions like fine or imprisonment for someone found to be the guilty for contempt of court
Meaning: According to Halsbury, Any act done or writing published which is calculated to bring a Court or Judge into disrepute or lower his authority or to interfere with the due course of justice or the Lawful process of the Court is contempt of Court.

Brief History: the word contempt is a conventional term used to cover any act in violation of the order of king or any governmental process. Even in case Carleton v. Hutton, palm. 424, where a contempt of bishop by disturbances in church was punished.[1] Contempt of court is the contempt of the lord of the court.[2]

In ancient times, as the society expanded, the disputes also started increasing and it was not possible for the king to settle all disputes personally. Therefore, he appointed persons to perform his duties and in this way the courts came into existence. Most of the disputes were settled by the courts on the basis of guidelines, given by the king. Still the king retained his right to hear any dispute himself. In this way the decision given by the court was the decision given by the king himself and If the king's authority could not be questioned, the courts authority could not be questioned too and If the king could not be abused or scandalized, so the courts could not be abused and scandalized.[3] If anyone interfered in the administration of justice, he was liable for the punishment.

In Indian context, the concept of contempt of court originated from the English law. In England Superior Courts exercised the power to commit for contempt persons who scandalized the Court or the Judges. The fist Indian stature on the law of contempt i.e., the Contempt of Courts Act was passed in 1926 and this statute was enacted to define and limit the powers of certain courts in punishing contempt of courts. the Contempt of Courts Act, 1926 were replaced by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1952 (32 of 1952).

In April, Sri Bibhuti Bhushan Das Gupta introduced a bill in the Lok Sabha to consolidate and amend the law relating to Contempt of Courts Act. The government appears to have felt that the law relating to Contempt of Courts in uncertain, undefined and unsatisfactory, it would be advisable to have the entire law on the subject scrutinized by a Special Committee and for that purpose a Committee was set up on 29th July, 1961 under the Chairmanship of the late Shri H.N. Sanayal the then Additional Solicitor General and it submitted its report on 28th February,1963 to define and limit the powers of certain courts in punishing contempt of courts and to regulate their procedure in relation thereto.

Joint Select Committee of Parliament on Contempt of Courts went in detail and a new Bill, The Contempt of Courts Bill, 1968 was prepared by the Joint Select Committee. The recommendations of the Committee had been accepted by Government after considering the views by the State Governments, Union Territory Administrations, the Supreme Court, the High Courts and the Judicial Commissioners. The Bill seeks to give effect to the accepted recommendations of the Sanyal Committee. And the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 (70 of 1971) was passed by the Parliament in December 1971 and it came into force w.e.f. 24th December, 1971.
In India, contempt of court is of two types: Civil Contempt and Criminal Contempt.

Civil Contempt: Under Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971, civil contempt has been defined as “willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other processes of a court or willful breach of an undertaking given to a court. It means a wrong to the person who is entitled to the benefit of a court order; It is essentially Initiated for effective implementation of an order; If court thinks fit that in cases of civil contempt, a fine will not be enough and that imprisonment is necessary, then the court may sentence the offender to a civil prison for a maximum term of 6 months; It usually consists of the violation of rights of one party while criminal contempt is seen as an offence against the judiciary and therefore the state.[4]

Criminal Contempt: Under Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971, criminal contempt has been defined as the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which:
  1. Scandalises or tends to scandalize, 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.
An offender of contempt of court can be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to two thousand rupees, or with both; Contempt that is criminal consists of a conduct which offends the majesty of law and undermines the dignity of the courts; The offence of contempt is with the administration of justice and the paramount idea is that no tribunal can function properly unless it is allowed to keep up its dignity.[5]

Contempt of Courts Act, 1971: A Brief Report Summary [6]

The Law Commission of India (chair by Justice B.S Chauhan) submitted its report on the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. The report explained whether the definition of contempt in the Act should be restricted to civil contempt, i.e. willful disobedience of judgments of court.

The commission concluded that there was no requirement to amend the Act, for the following reasons:- The first reason is the high number of contempt cases and the commission observed that the high number of cases justify the continuing relevance of the Act and also stated that the amending definition of the contempt may reduce the overall impact of the law.

Other one is the International comparison as in relation to the offence of scandalising the Court, the United Kingdom (UK) had abolished the offence in its contempt laws. But also states that there were differences in circumstances in India and the UK and observed that abolishing the offence in India would leave a legislative gap. The commission observed that the Supreme Court and High Courts derive their contempt powers from the constitution.

The commission noted that there are several adequate safeguards into the Act to protect against its misuse. For instance, the Act contains provisions which lays down cases that do not amount to contempt and cases that where contempt is not punishable. These provisions suggest that the courts will not prosecute all cases of contempt and also noted that the Act had withstood judicial scrutiny, and therefore, there was no reason to amend it.

Object of law of contempt:

One of the main objectives of the law of contempt is to protect the machinery of justice and the interests of the public. It provides a mechanism to prevent interference and to maintain the authority of the law. The object of contempt proceedings is not to protect judges personally from criticism but to protect the public by preserving the authority of the court and the administration of justice from undue attack.

Here are the guidelines for the exercise of the jurisdiction to commit for contempt have been laid down as follows:[7]

  • Economical use of jurisdiction is desirable.
  • Harmonization between free criticism and the judiciary should be the goal.
  • Confusion between the personal protection of a libelled judge and the prevention of obstruction of public justice should be avoided.
  • The press should be given free play within responsible limits, even when the focus of its critical attention is the court.
  • Judges should not be hyper sensitive, even where distortions and criticism overstep the limits.

As the concept of contempt of court, originated in pre-independence India, where the British looked to stifle the criticism of the judicial system by the public. Though the Contempt of Court Act, 1952 and 1971 have since repealed many of the stifling provisions of the pre-independence act, some lacunae remain in the law.[8]

Justice Krishna Iyer said, the law of contempt has a vague and wandering jurisdiction with uncertain boundaries. Such a law, regardless of public good, may unwittingly trample upon civil liberties.

The Law of Contempt of Court has to balance the Freedom of right to speech and expression granted to the citizens of and the provisions should be made to enable the judicial system to function without any obstruction. In a democracy, the purpose of the Contempt of Court power can only be to enable the Court to function and the power is not to prevent the people from criticizing the Judges if the latter do not function properly or commit misconduct. The power given is to prevent obstruction of justice people should have the right to criticize judges. The purpose of the contempt power should not be to uphold the majesty and dignity of the court but only to enable it to function.

The propositions that have been made in the course of the development of the law are: Firstly, the correct procedure to punish for offences against the due administration of justice is to punish such offences as ordinary offences through the ordinary procedure – as far as practicable. And this would alter the balance of power between the higher judiciary and the lower courts as well as the High Courts and the people. Secondly, there is no impediment to a law being made by the legislature which could cut down the powers of the High Court to punish for contempt and for the procedure to be followed. Also ‘reasonable restrictions’ can be imposed both on the contempt power as well as on the free speech it seeks to control. It is the time that the shadow on the reform of the law of contempt, to the effect that wide ranging reforms cannot be made, is lifted.

  1. Joseph h. Beale, Jr, contempt of court, criminal and civil, Harvard law review, 21(3), 1908,161-174,162
  2. Id. at 162
  4. Arpita Pranav & Kumar Mangalam, contempt of court, The Law Brigade (Publishing) Group, 3(5),September 2017, 225-239, 226
  5. Id, at 227
  6. Roshni Sinha, Law Commission report Summary Review of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, PRS Legislative Research, april 27, 2018.
  7. Supra note 3.
  8. Supra note 3.

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