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Comprehensive Note on the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971

Details of the Act
Act ID - 197170
Act Number - 70
Enactment Date: 24-12-1971
Enforcement Date: 24-12-1971
Act Year: 1971

Short Title: The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971
Long Title: An Act to define and limit the powers of certain courts in punishing contempt of courts and to regulate their procedure in relation.
Ministry: Ministry of Law and Justice
Department: Department of Justice

Summary of the Act
Judiciary has the extensive function of acting as the guardian of the Constitution of India and the protector of the fundamental rights of the citizens, therefore, maintaining the reputation and the faith of the institution in the eyes of the citizens is quintessential.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, contempt is the state of being despised or dishonored; disgrace. According to Oswald, any conduct that tends to bring the authority and administration of law into disrespect or disregard or to interfere with or prejudice parties or their witness during litigation is considered to be contempt of court.

The law of contempt holds its roots in English Law. The first statute on Contempt of Court Act in India was passed in the year 1926 and later got replaced by the Contempt of Court Act, 1952. The Act was passed by the Parliament in 1971 and came into force on 24th Dec 1974. It extends to the whole of India and consists of 24 Sections.
In order to maintain the integrity of the court, it is an inherent power of the Judiciary to punish for Contempt of Court. The power to punish for Contempt of Court is a �necessary incident to every Court of Justice�.

With the coming of the constitution Art. 129 and 215 declared the superior courts as the courts of record with the power to punish for contempt. Court of Record includes High Courts and the Supreme Court. Additionally, Art. 142 (2) provides that Supreme Court shall have the power to make orders for the investigation or punishment for any contempt itself.

As per the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 contempt of court can either be:
  1. Civil Contempt:
    Civil contempt is the willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ, or another process of a court or willful breach of any the undertaking is given to a court.
  2. Criminal Contempt:
    Criminal contempt is the direct interference with the administration of justice is where the act impedes or subverts the process of the court, thereby affecting the judicial process. It is important to note that any act or publication that substantially affects the administration of justice or maliciously lowers the integrity of court in the public eye can only constitute contempt. Acts like bribing a witness of an ongoing case amount to criminal contempt.

Exceptions to contempt:
  1. Innocent Publication: As per Section 3 of the Act an innocent publication including words spoken or written is an exception to the contempt of court.
  2. Fair comment/criticism: A fair comment on the merits of any case is an exception to the contempt pursuant to Section 5 of the Act, provided the case has been heard and finally decided.
  1. Truth � Defence of truth can be taken if a comment made is bonafide and in the public interest (Section 13)
  2. Privileges � The freedom of speech vested in MPs is absolute and any comments made by them during parliamentary proceedings are not liable to court proceedings.
Chart of sections and a gist of the provisions the chapters
Section Section Brief Section Details
Sec. 1 Short title and extent. This section lays out the name of the Act, i.e., the Contempt of Courts Act,1971. It mentions that the Act is applicable to the whole of India, except for the State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Sec. 2 Definitions. This section lays out the definition and meaning of:
Contempt of Court � it means civil or criminal contempt.

Civil Contempt:
it is the willful disobedience to any of the judgment, order, decree, writ, or other processes of a court. It also refers to the wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court.

Criminal Contempt:
it means publication, whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or visible representation any act that scandalizes or tends to scandalize the authority of a court, prejudices or interferes or tends to prejudice or interfere with the due course of any judicial proceedings, and interferes or tends to interfere with the administration of justice in any manner.

High Court:
it means the High Court for a State or a Union Territory and included the court of the respective Judicial Commissioner in any Union Territory.
Sec. 3 Innocent publishing and distribution of matter, not contempt. This Section lays out when a person shall not be guilty of contempt. The legislators have via this section clarified the meaning of pending judicial proceedings: - where after they have laid down specific scenarios and grounds as to which acts would constitute an Innocent Publication and Distribution of Contempt.

A Person shall not be guilty of Contempt when:
He has published any matter that may interfere with the due course of justice and judicial proceedings, at a time when he had no reasonable grounds to believe that the proceeding was pending (includes both civil and criminal).

He has published any matter which is not pending at the time of publication, then it shall not constitute Contempt.

He has published any matter, which at the time of distribution, he had no reasonable grounds to believe that it contained or was likely to contain such matter.

This clause does not apply to:
Any publication which is a book or printed paper and has rules contained in Section 3 of the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 (25 of 1867).
Any publication which is a newspaper and has rules contained in Section 5 of the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 (25 of 1867).

This Section further defines �Pending Judicial Proceeding� Legislators state that a Judicial Proceeding is pending when:
In a Civil Proceeding, when the case is said to be instituted.

In a Criminal Proceeding, when it relates to the commission of an offense, wherein a charge sheet or challan has been filed, or where the concerned court has issued warrant or summons, against the accused.

The above Civil and Criminal Case is said to pending until it is fully and finally heard and decided or where no appeal has been preferred until the expiry of the period of limitation.
Sec. 4 Fair and accurate report of the judicial proceeding, not contempt. This Section is subject to the provisions laid out in section 7 of the Contempt of Courts act, 1971. A person shall not be help guilty Contempt, if he publishes a fair and accurate report of a judicial proceeding or any stage of that judicial proceeding.
Sec. 5 Fair criticism of judicial act not contempt. This Section states that a person shall not be held guilty of Contempt, if he publishes any fair comment or criticism on the case which has been heard, decided and settled.
Sec. 6 Complaint against presiding officers of subordinate courts when not contempt. This Section states that a person shall not be held guilty of contempt if he has made a statement or remark in good faith concerning the presiding officer of any Subordinate Court to any other Subordinate Court or the High Court, to which it is subordinate or lower in authority.
Sec. 7 Publication of information relating to proceedings in chambers or in camera not contempt except in certain cases. This Section states that a person shall not be guilty of Contempt of Court for publishing a fair and accurate report of judicial proceedings before any court, either sitting in chambers or in camera.
This involves following exceptions:
  1. Public Policy
  2. Public Order
  3. Security of the State
  4. Information related to a Secret Process, Discovery or Invention, or, in exercise of the power vested in it.
Sec. 8 Other defences not affected. This Section states that if any other defence is available and makes a valid defence in any proceedings for contempt of court, it will be considered, even if it is not mentioned in this Act.
Sec. 9 Act not to imply enlargement of scope of contempt. This Section states that if any disobedience, breach, publication or other act which is not mentioned in this Act or is out of the bounds of this Act, will be punishable if it amounts to contempt.
Sec. 10 Power of High Court to punish contempt's of subordinate courts. This Section states that every High Court has and exercises similar jurisdiction, power and authority while dealing with contempt of courts subordinate to it.

The phrase �courts subordinate to it� used in section 10 is wide enough to include all courts which are judicially subordinate to the High Court even though administrative control over them under Article 235 of the Constitution does not vest in the High Court.

The condition that should be considered is that no High Court can deal with contempt of a subordinate court where such offence is punishable under the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860).
Sec. 11 Power of High Court to try offences committed or offenders found outside jurisdiction. This Section states that A High Court shall have jurisdiction to inquire or try a contempt of itself or of any court subordinate to it, whether the contempt is alleged to have been committed within or outside the local limits of its jurisdiction, and whether the person alleged to be guilty of contempt is within or outside such limits.

This section expands the ambit of the authority beyond what was till then considered to be possible but it does not confer a new jurisdiction.
Sec. 12 Punishment for contempt of court. This Section 12 (1) explains that, a contempt of court is punishable with an imprisonment for a term up to 6 months, or fine which may extend to 2000 Rupees, or both.
The accused can be discharged by making an apology which sounds satisfactory to the Court. The same apology shall not be rejected if it is qualified or conditional if the accused makes it bona fide.

Section 12 (2) states that no court can impose a punishment in excess of that specified in sub-section 1 for a subordinate court or itself.

Section 12 (3) states that under civil contempt, if the fine does not justify the amount of damage done or does not do justice to the denigration done to a court, then. If the court considers, it can sentence the accused a simple imprisonment in civil prison for a period not exceedingly more than 6 months.
Sec. 13 Contempt's not punishable in certain cases. This Section deals with the areas where remarks and comments do not amount to Contempt of Court:
Unless the court is satisfied that the Contempt interferes or tend to interfere with the due course of justice. If it does not, then it doesn�t comprise an offence.
The remark made is true � it should be in public interest and is bona fide.

Section 13 postulates no punishment for contemptuous conduct in certain cases and the language used therein seems to be with utmost care and caution when it records that unless the court is satisfied that the contempt is of such a nature that the act complained of substantially interferes with the due course of justice, question of any punishment would not arise. It is not enough that there should be some technical contempt of court but it must be shown that the act of contempt would otherwise substantially interfere with the due course of justice which has been equated with �due administration of justice�

A party (or person) can be committed for contempt only owing to any wilful or deliberate or reckless disobedience of the order of the Court.
Sec. 14 Procedure where contempt is in the face of the Supreme Court or a High Court. This Section deals with contempt in the face of the Supreme Court and High Courts and it provides that whenever it appears to the Supreme Court and the High Courts that a person appears to have committed contempt in its presence or hearing the court may cause such person to be detained in custody. And shall at any time before the rising of the court on the same day or as early as possible, thereafter:
  1. Cause him to be informed in writing of the contempt with which he is charged
  2. Afford him an opportunity to make his defence in respect of the charge.
  3. After taking such evidence as may be offered by such person and after hearing him proceed either forthwith or after adjournment to determine the matter of the charge.
  4. Make such order for the punishment or discharge of such person as may be necessary.
Where the person charged with contempt under this section applies whether orally or in writing to have the charge against him, tried by some judge other than the judge or judges in whose presence or hearing the contempt is alleged to have been committed and the court is of the opinion that it is necessary in the interest of justice that the application should be allowed, it shall cause the matter to be placed before the Chief Justice with the statement of facts of the case for transfer before such judge as the Chief Justice may think fit and proper under the circumstances of the case.

However, it shall not be necessary for the judge or Judges in whose presence or hearing the contempt is alleged to have been committed to appear as a witness before the Court where the matter has been referred. The statement of facts of the case written by the judge or Judges while referring the matter to the Chief Justice shall be treated as evidence in the case.
Sec. 15 Cognizance of criminal contempt in other cases. Under this Section 15 (1), in cases of criminal contempt, other than contempt referred in Section 14 (procedure where contempt is in the face of the Supreme Court or a High Court), the Supreme Court or the High Court may take action on a motion either made by itself or on a motion made either by:
  1. Advocate General
  2. Any other person, with a written consent by the Advocate General
  3. On the motion of such law officer in relation to the High Court for the Union Territory of Delhi as the central government may notify.
Section 15(2) provides that in case of criminal contempt of a sub-ordinate court, the concerned High Court may take action in the following manner:
  1. On the reference made to it by the sub-ordinate court
  2. On the motion made by the Advocate General.
  3. On the motion made by such law officer in relation to a Union Territory as the Central Government may specify.
Section 15(3) provides that every motion or reference shall specify the contempt of which the person charged is alleged to be guilty.

The expression advocate general in this section means the following:
  1. in relation to the Supreme Court, the Attorney General or the solicitor general.
  2. In relation to a High Court, the Advocate General of the states for which High Court has been established.
  3. In relation to the court of judicial commissioner, such law officer as the central government may specify.
Sec. 16 Contempt by judge, magistrate or other person acting judicially This Section puts forth that a judge, a magistrate or any other person acting judicially shall also be liable for contempt of his own court or of any other court in the same manner as any other individual is liable and the provisions of this Act shall apply accordingly.

This Section also states that nothing in this Section applies to any observations or remarks made by a judge, magistrate or other person acting judicially, regarding:
a subordinate court, revision pending before such judge, magistrate or other person against the order judgment of the subordinate court.
Sec. 17 Procedure after cognizance. Section 17 states that the notice of proceeding under Section 15, will be taken personally on the accused unless directed otherwise by the court. The notice shall be accompanied in 2 cases:
  1. If the proceedings started on a motion, by a copy of the motion, copy of affidavits, on which such motion is founded.
  2. If the proceeding started as a result of the reference given by a Subordinate Court, then a copy is required.
If the Court is satisfied that a person is avoiding the service of the notice, then it can order the attachment of his property of the value as it may seem justified and reasonable. Every attachment has to be prescribed in manner given in the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.

If the court satisfied that person did not avoid service of the notice, then it shall order the release of his property.

Any person may file an affidavit in support of his defence for contempt.
Sec. 18 Hearing of cases of criminal contempt to be by Benches. This Section states that every case of criminal contempt under Section 15 shall not be heard by a Bench of less than two judges. This does not apply to the Court of a Judicial Commissioner.
Sec. 19 Appeals. Section 19(1) of the act provides right of only one appeal. It provides that an appeal shall lie as of right from any order or decision of the High Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction to punish for contempt.

If the order of punishment has been passed by single judge of High Court, there is right of appeal to the division bench of not less than two judges of High Court.
If the order of punishment is passed by a division on bench then appeal will lie in Supreme Court.

However, in case of punishment order passed by single judge, the right of appeal gets exhausted once the appeal is filed before the division bench and there is no further right of appeal under the Contempt of Court Act.

However, the remedy under Article 136 of Constitution will still be available and the Supreme Court may grant leave to appeal under Article 136. Section 19(4) provides for the period of limitation for preferring an appeal.

It provides that an appeal under Article 19(1) shall be filed within thirty days to the division bench of High Court and in case the order of punishment has been passed by division bench of High Court then within sixty days to the Supreme Court from the date of the order appealed against. Section 19(2) deals with the power of Appellate Court during the pendency of appeal. It provides that during the pendency of the appeal the Appellate Court may pass the following orders:
  1. The execution of the punishment order shall remain suspended.
  2. If appellant is under confinement imprisonment, he may be released on bail.
  3. The appeal may be heard notwithstanding that the appellant has not perched his contempt.

Section 19(3) provided that an appeal under section 19 will lie at the instance of the person aggrieved. A proceeding for contempt is between the court and the contemner. A person who moves the application for initiating contempt proceeding does not come within the category of person aggrieved and therefore he has no locus to file an appeal, if his contention for initiating the contempt proceeding is rejected.

If a person is found guilty for contempt of court, an appeal will lie under section 19 that the instance of person who is found guilty and is consequently punished. But if a person is not found guilty of contempt proceedings and proceedings for contempt is either dismissed or dropped against him then the informant or person who has moved the application for initiating the contempt will have no right of appeal under section 19 of the Act.
Sec. 20 Limitation for actions for contempt. This Section states that no court can initiate any proceedings of contempt after the expiration of 1 year from the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed.

In order to appreciate the exact connotation of the expression �initiate any proceedings of contempt� it is necessary to notice several situations or stages which may arise before the court dealing with contempt proceedings. These are:
  1. a private party may file or present an application or petition for initiating any proceedings for civil contempt
  2. the court may receive a motion or reference from the Advocate-General or with his consent in writing from any other person or a specified Law Officer or a court subordinate to High Court:
  3. the court may in routine issue notice to the person sought to be proceeded against, or
  4. the court may issue notice to the respondent calling upon him to show cause why the proceedings for contempt be not initiated;
  5. the court may issue notice to the person sought to be proceeded against calling upon him to show cause why he be not punished for contempt.
Sec. 21 Act not to apply to Nyaya Panchayats or other village courts. This Section lays out that nothing in this Act shall apply to Nyaya Panchayats or other village courts.
Sec. 22 Act to be in addition to, and not in derogation of, other laws relating to contempt. This Section claims that this Act shall be in addition to any other existing law dealing with Contempt of Court,

The provisions incorporated in the Act are supplemented to already existing law of contempt.
Sec. 23 Power of Supreme Court and High Courts to make rules. This Section states that the Supreme Court or any High Court can make the rules that are not inconsistent with the provisions of this Act.
Sec. 24 Repeal. This Section states that the Contempt of Courts Act, 1952 (32 of 1952), is hereby repealed.

Landmark Judgements under the Contempt of Courts Act

In Re: Arundhati Roy:

The Supreme Court of India held the Respondent guilty of contempt and thus sentenced her to one day�s imprisonment and a minimal fine. Arundhati Roy had criticized the Court�s decision on building a dam and had accused the Court of muzzling dissent and held a protest in front of the Court. This led to the initiation of contempt proceedings against her. The Court held that freedom of speech and expression is not absolute and is subject to reasonable restrictions prescribed by law. One such restriction is the Contempt of Courts, to maintain the dignity and integrity of the public. The Court, further stated that Arundhati Roy�s comments were not bona fide, i.e., they weren�t made in good faith and in the interest of the general public.

Indirect Tax Practitioners� Association Vs. R.K. Jain:

The two-judge bench held that �truth based on facts� should be allowed as a valid defense when relating to a speech or an editorial or article of a newspaper or magazine. Such defense should not be a cover-up to escape from the consequences arising out of vilifying the Court�s dignity. The Supreme Court of India held that the defense of truth can be given to a person accused of Contempt if two conditions are satisfied, (i) if it is in the interest of the public, (ii) if it is made in good faith. These conditions are given under Section 13 of the Contempt of Court, 1971. The Court further ordered Rs. 2 lakhs on petitioner�s association, out of which Rs. 1 lakh would go to Jain and the rest are to be deposited with the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee.

Supreme Court Bar Association Vs. Union Of India & Anr:

in this case, it was held that the procedural aspect for the Contempt Crime will still be prescribed by the Parliament so that it remains applicable to both the Supreme Court and the High Courts. Section 12(1) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 prescribes the maximum fine of Rs. 5000 and imprisonment for a term up to 6 months, remains applicable in this case.

Sudhakar Prasad Vs. Govt. Of A.P. & Ors

this case is on similar lines with the Supreme Court Bar Association Case. In this case, as well, the Supreme Court declared the power to punish for the crime of contempt is inherited in the nature of the Constitution. The provision of the Contempt of Court cannot be used to limit the exercise of jurisdiction given in Article 129 and Article 215 of the Constitution.

Zahira Habibullah Sheikh & Anr Vs. State Of Gujarat & Ors:

The Court ordered a re-trial of the case outside Gujarat in which nine out of seventeen accused were convicted by a Special Court in Mumbai in 2006. The Court held that every person has a right to a fair trial by a competent court in the spirit of the right to life and personal liberty enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. It was held in this case that the punishment that is given for contempt in the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 shall only be applicable to the High Court but for Supreme Court, it acts as a guide. The judgment that was given was not accompanied by rationality; this was worrisome because the Supreme Court has been given great powers that the drafters of the Indian Constitution have also not given.

R.N Dey And Others V. Bhagya Bati Pramanik And Others:

The weapon of contempt is not to be used in abundance or misused. Normally, it cannot be used for the execution of the decree or implementation of the decree or implementation of an order for which alternative remedy in law is provided for. Discretion given to the court is to be exercised for maintenance of the Court�s dignity and majesty of law. Further, an aggrieved party has no right to insist that the court should exercise such jurisdiction as contempt is between contemnor and the court. Further, it has been held that a person who does not take steps to execute the decree/order in accordance with the procedure prescribed by law, should not be encouraged to invoke the contempt jurisdiction of the court for non-satisfaction of the decree or order.

Hari Singh Nagra Vs. Kapil Sibal:

Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution contemplates that freedom of expression is available to the press 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. In fact, such fair and reasonable criticism must be encouraged because after all no one, much fewer judges, can claim infallibility.

Prashant Bhushan Case:

The bench had held Bhushan guilty of contempt of court. The court had taken suo moto cognizance of two of Bhushan�s tweets. The tweets in question were critical of the top court and posted by Bhushan. The Supreme Court fined lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan Rs. 1 in the Contempt of Court case against him for his tweets on Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde and former CJIs, ruling that it has taken his conduct into consideration. The court also said Bhushan can face jail for three months and will be debarred from practice for three years if he doesn�t pay the fine by 15 September. The Supreme Court�s decision to hold Bhushan in contempt has been widely criticized by retired judges of the Supreme Court and high courts, lawyers, politicians, members of the civil society, and others. It is being seen as an attempt to quash reasonable dissent.

Justice Karnan�s Case:

He was the first sitting High Court Judge to be jailed for six months on the accusation of Contempt of Court. In February 2017, contempt of court proceeding was initiated against him after he accused twenty Judges of the Higher Judiciary of Corruption. He wrote a letter to PM Modi against this but he did not provide any evidence against them. He failed to provide any evidence against those named in the list but at the same time urged Mr. Modi to investigate and take action against them. After that, he was summoned before the top court and barred from performing any judicial or administrative functions. Justice Karnan responded by accusing the seven judges of caste discrimination, banning them from leaving the country, and demanding compensation.

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