Contempt of court is the offense of being disobedient to or disrespectful
towards a court of law. Being disrespectful to legal authorities in the
courtroom, or willfully failing to obey a court order may attract Contempt of
Court proceedings. A judge may impose sanctions such as a fine or jail for
someone found guilty of contempt of court.
Contempt of court in Indian constitution
Article 129 of Indian Constitution: Supreme Court to be a court of record
“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.”
A court of record is a court whose record are admitted to be of evidentiary
value and they are not to be questioned when they are produced before the court.
Once a court is made a court of record, its power to punish for contempt
necessarily follows from that position.The power to punish for contempt of
court has been expressly conferred on the Supreme Court and High court by Indian
constitution. This extraordinary power must be sparingly exercised only where
there is public interest demand.
Contempt of Courts Act of 1971
The contempt of courts Act, 1971, defines the power of courts for punishing
contempts of courts and regulates their procedure. It also provides for judges
to be tried for contempt of court.
In India, contempt of court is of two types: Civil Contempt and Criminal
·Under Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971.
·civil contempt has been defined as wilful disobedience to any
judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other processes of a court or wilful
breach of an undertaking given to a court.
· 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:
(i) Scandalises or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the
authority of, any court, or
(ii) Prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with the due course of any
judicial proceeding, or
(iii) Interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct,
the administration of justice in any other manner.
The amendment to the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 in 2006
Neither truth nor good faith was defenses against the law of contempt in India.
This was rectified only in 2006 by an amendment to the Contempt of Courts Act.
The2006 amendment to the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 clarifies that the Court
may impose punishment for contempt only when it is satisfied that substantially
interferes, or tends to substantially interfere with the due course of justice.
But this was not followed in the Mid-Day case, where the Delhi high court
sentenced employees of the publication for contempt of court for publishing
content that portrayed a retired Chief Justice of India unfavourably. Mid-Day
raised the defense of truth and good faith but was not entertained.
Court Cases connected with Contempt of Court in India
·In Duda P.N. v. Shivshankar
,the Supreme Court observed that the
contempt jurisdiction should not be used by Judges to uphold their own dignity.
In the free market places of ideas, criticism about the judicial system or the
Judges should be welcomed, so long as criticisms do not impair or hamper the
“administration of justice”.
·In Auto Shankar’s Case
, Jeevan Reddy J, invoked the famous
“Sullivan doctrine” that public persons must be open to stringent comments and
accusations as long as made with bonafide diligence, even if untrue.
·In Arundhati Roy
, In re, the Supreme Court observed that a fair
criticism of the conduct of a Judge, the institution of the judiciary and its
functioning may not amount to contempt if made in good faith and in public
·In Indirect Tax practitioners’ Association v. R.K. Jain
observed that the Court may now permit truth as a defense if two things are
satisfied, viz., (i) it is in public interest and (ii) the request for invoking
said the defense is bona fide. (S.13, Contempt of Courts Act,1971).
Freedom of Speech and Expression vs Contempt of Court
Article 19(1)(a)of the Constitution gives the right of freedom of speech and
expression to all citizens.
Articles 129 and 215give the power of contempt of court to the higher
judiciary, and this power limits the freedom granted by Article 19(1)(a).
As 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.
Further, the assumption that respect for the judiciary can be won by shielding
judges from criticism misjudges public opinion. Surely an enforced silence, in
the name of preserving the dignity of the judiciary, would cause resentment,
suspicion and contempt, more than it would enhance respect.
In a democracy, the 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 right of the citizens to free speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a)
should be treated as primary, and the power of contempt should be subordinate.
The relevance of contempt law in a free society and the press- conference hold
by 4 senior most judges was a contempt of Court?
The power to punish for contempt was draconian in nature without commensurate
safeguards in favor of the persons charged with the accusation of having
committed contempt of court.
Such a power isnot in consonance with the constitutional scheme of India. The
basic principle in a democracy is that the people are supreme. Once this concept
of popular sovereignty is kept firmly in mind, it becomes obvious that the
people of India are the masters and all authorities (including the courts) are
In many countries, contempt jurisdiction is regarded as archaic and exercised
sparingly. In the US, courts no longer use contempt to silence comments on
judges or legal matters. The First Amendment to the US Constitution forbids
imposition of contempt sanctions on a newspaper.
The concept of criminal contempt in India owing its origin to mid-British times
was a corollary of the adage that the king could do no wrong. But this drastic
power isoften used by the judges in an arbitrary manner. In a free society
criticism of the judiciary is inevitable.
Judges have vast powers and people will not remain silent about the exercise of
such powers. Just as decisions of other branches of government attract
criticism, judicial decisions would also invite the same.
The test to determine whether an act amounts to contempt of court or not is
this: does it make the functioning of the judges impossible or extremely
difficult? If it does not, then it does not amount to contempt of court even if
it is harsh criticism.
The law of contempt should be employed only to enable the court to function, not
to prevent criticism.
It’s time for the legislature to take steps to amend the Contempt of Court Act
and eschew definition of criminal contempt.
Judiciary should balance two conflicting principles, ie freedom of expression,
and fair and fearless justice.
A mature and “broad-shouldered” approach to criticism can only inspire public
confidence, not denigrate the judiciary, for justice, as Lord Atkin said, is “no
So in the recent news, the press-conference hold by four senior most justice was
not contempt of court as they have exercised their right of speech and
expression under art. 19 (1)(a) of the constitution and also their act was done
in good faith and for the Public Interest. While holding press-conference they
kept in mind the principle of Democracy and sovereignty.
Contempt of Court in news recently
The recent confrontation between Justice Markandeya Katju and the Supreme Court
has raised some issues on contempt jurisdiction in India. There is also an
ongoing issue between Calcutta High Court judge CS Karnan and Supreme Court on
contempt of court.
In another instance, Justice Kurian Joseph of the Supreme Court of India has
said that the trial by the media on pending cases is tantamount to contempt of
The Supreme Court in Kuldeep Kapoor & Ors vs. Courton its Motion has
observed that a litigant refusing to answer a question put to him by the Court
does not constitute criminal contempt of Court.
Besides all these, there are various allegations that judges in the superior
courts routinely misuse the power to punish for contempt of court more to cover
up their own misdeeds than to uphold the majesty of the law.
1.The constitution of India
2.Contempt of Court Act, 1971
CAD, vol VIII, p. 852
Hira lal vs. state of U.P.
1988 SCR (3) 547
R. Rajagopal vs State Of T.N 1994 SCC (6) 632
2011 AIR 2234
126 (2006) DLT 149