KEY TAKE AWAYS
- Contempt of court is a legal violation which involves willful disobedience of the courts or its judges.
- It can be Civil or Criminal.
- There lacks a clear boundary between criticism and disdain in the application of contempt laws.
- It has been widely criticized for its sometimes-unreasonable restriction of the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19.
- It should be reviewed and made applicable sparingly, only when the situation indicates danger to the institution of the courts.
Contempt of court is a legal violation committed by an individual who willfully disobeys a judge or otherwise disrupts the legal process in the courtroom. Contempt of court is broadly compartmentalized into two categories: criminal vs civil, and direct vs indirect.
The rationale behind the concept of contempt law is to sustain the dignity of judicial institutions and protect them from miscreants who aim to lower its authority by punishing them.
Kings were regarded as the paramount figure in delivering justice throughout ancient times, and his powers were extensive and irrefutable. At that time, the people had no right to condemn or denounce the king's actions, and if they did so, they were punished. The contempt law was exercised to protect the dignity and supremacy of the Kings.
Any resistance to the King was a sin which had its ill effects. Later the courts exercised this power as well and whosoever violated the court’s order was considered as a direct offence to the king. The courts had deduced their contempt power from the King’s authority.
In India, the contempt law can be traced back to the British Rule. The Contempt of Court Act, 1926 was the first legislation enacted in India which was concerned with contempt of court.The Act empowered the High Court to punish for contempt of itself and the courts inferior to it. The punishment under the Act was imprisonment for a maximum period of six months or fine of up to Rs. 2000 or both. The accused was to be discharged if he renders an apology. This act was later replaced by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1952.
A Sanyal Committee was set up in 1961 for examining the law regarding contempt of law. It looked into the historical aspect of the contempt law as well as different judgments dealing with contempt law. The committee recommended that confidence in administration of justice is essential, however, at the same time the right to personal liberty and freedom of speech and expression are to be respected.The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 was enacted based on the Sanyal Committee, which replaced the Act of 1952.
The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 defines ‘contempt of court’ as either civil contempt or criminal contempt.
A. Civil Contempt
According to Section 2(b) civil contempt means willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or willful breach of an undertaking given to a court. For an act to be considered as civil contempt it is necessary that there was willful disobedience of the court’s order, while the purpose for being punished is to enforce a court’s order rather than merely punishing a contemner.
B. Criminal Contempt
According to Section 2(c), any act which “scandalizes or tends to scandalize”, “lowers or tends to lower” the authority of any court, “prejudices” or “interferes or tends to interfere” with the administration of justice amounts to criminal contempt. It is a more serious offence than civil contempt. Mens rea is not a component which is essential in order to punish a person for criminal contempt, if the act complained of is likely to interfere with administration of justice.
A contempt of court may be punished under section 12 with imprisonment for a term up to six months or a fine up to Rs. 2000 or both.
In a recent case, The Supreme Court found Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt of court in the Suo moto case in relation to his two tweets which referred to the Chief Justice of India as well as the Supreme Courts.One of the tweets was in relation to the stance of the Supreme Court and the last 4 Chief Justices of India while the other talked about the current CJI riding a motorbike.A three-judge bench had perceived his tweets as serious contempt of court. They felt that tweetstend to shake the confidence of the public in the institution of judiciary and undermines the dignity and authority of the Supreme Court and CJI and directly affronts the majesty of law.
RELEVANT OR ARCHAIC
Article 19 of the Constitution of India guarantees freedom of speech and expression, but contempt law is considered a reasonable restriction upon this right under Article 19.
In E.M Sankaran v. T. Narayanan [AIR 1970 SC 2015]the Supreme Court observed that the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right, but the same Constitution has imposed a restriction on this right in the name of contempt of court.Therefore, it cannot be said that this right is superior to the contempt power.
The contempt law has undergone harsh criticism in the past few years. The main objection with the law is that it puts unreasonable restrictions on the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed as a fundamental right under the Constitution of India. Another contention is that the major democracies including England, where the law had originated, had abolished this law a long ago. The law is also seen in a questionable light as the proceeding is initiated with the presumption of guilt rather than innocence,and where the Court takes up the role of both as a prosecutor and victim. Additionally, the Court has the authority to define what act scandalizes or lowers the authority of the court.
The Judiciary needs to re-examine the scope of the contempt law with the current need of the society. Being a large authority with many obligations and tasks, the judiciary is bound to receive some criticism. The law for contempt should be exercised sparingly and should not be used as a tool to silence such fair criticism. Over the last few years, the judiciary should have matured to the point where it can confront criticism while simultaneously refusing to condone behaviour that undermines the court's grandeur.
In the bazaar of ideas, criticisms about the judicial system or the Judges should be welcomed, provided that criticisms do not impair or hamper the administration of justice. One should be aware of the boundaries, as there is a very thin line difference between criticism and vilification. While one has the right to freedom of speech and expression as their fundamental right, he also has the duty to maintain the dignity and integrity of the institution.The right of freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute right and can be taken away in case someone tries to cross the justifiable limit permitted by the law of land.