This article is written by Sarwar Nagpal of 2nd semester of ILS LAW COLLEGE, PUNE.
Contempt of court is a legal concept rooted in Ancient legal system. With time it evolved and its objective became to protect the dignity and integrity of judiciary. It came into Indian context from English law. The article talks about evolution of the concept along with evolution of Contempt of Court Act, 1971. It also classified the Contempt between Civil and Criminal Contempt. The article explains the importance of the act and has a look at the arguments against the act. Constitutional validity of the act id also provided in the article.
Contempt of Court, Supreme Court, Sanyan Committee, Freedom of Speech, Dignity of Court, Criminal Contempt, Civil Contempt, Constitutional validity.
Contempt of court is a legal concept that refers to behaviors that disrespect or obstruct the authority, dignity, or functioning of a court of law. It can occur both inside and outside the courtroom.
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.”
Direct contempt involves disruptive behavior within the courtroom, such as being disrespectful to the judge or refusing to comply with court orders. Indirect contempt occurs outside the courtroom and typically involves disobeying court orders or interfering with the administration of justice. Consequences for contempt can include fines, imprisonment, or remedial actions to address the behavior. The specific laws and procedures regarding contempt of court vary between jurisdictions. It has always remained one of the most debated topics in legal history and it is still debatable.
Origin of Concept:
Justice is the most important essential for a society. From ancient time to modern times, in different forms of government or diversity in people, Justice is the base for every society and its elements to prevail. Its importance is realized by great thinkers and philosophers in their writings.
In ancient times, King had the sole responsibity for justice to his subjects for justice. People of realm use to directly approach the king, if they felt any injustice. But as the population grew and size of society expanded, it became impossible for the king to solve all problems personally. Therefore, King started appointing persons to do this job on his behalf and with this, the Institution of Courts came into existence. If the king neither be questioned nor scandalized for their method of justice, then Courts also have no ground to be questioned.
The concept of Contempt of Court was first acquired implications in theological conations. They were subject of Ecclesiastical Courts of Middle Ages when ethics and laws are treated to be at par. The Origin of this concept can be found in early Common Law of England. The concept of contempt of court emerged as a means to protect the authority, dignity, and effectiveness of the courts. One of the earliest recorded instances of contempt of court is found in the 14th-century legal treatise called “Mirror of Justices” (Speculum Justiciariorum) written by Andrew Horne. It outlined the offense of “scandalizing the court,” which involved making false or scandalous statements about judges or their decisions with the intent to undermine the authority of the court.
Origin in India:
In India, the concept originated from English Law. In England, Superior Courts exercised the power to punish for offences of Scandalizing courts and Disruption in justice. In India, the first law regarding Contempt of Court was passed in 1926 and was referred as ‘Contempt of Court Act, 1926’. After Independence, this act was revisited by Indian Lawmakers and was passed as ‘Contempt of Court Act, 1952’ with some changes. But still it did not define ‘Contempt of Court’ in absolute terms. So, this act was studied again and with several changes ‘Contempt of Court, 1971’ Act was passed, which is still use in present.
CONTEMPT OF COURT ACT, 1971:
Indian legal fraternity was not satisfied with current laws of Contempt of court i.e. Act of 1952. The main reason for it was the term Contempt of court was not well defined in the previous act. With the increasing cases of contempt, the law seems to uncertain and unsatisfactory. So, to have a well-defined and structured act, a committee was set up by Government on 29th July, 1961 under the chairmanship of H.N. Sanyal, then additional Solicitor General. The committee was appointed with the following tasks:
[i] Prepare draft of bill relating to Contempt of Court, Generally and procedure for amendments, particularly.
[ii]Suggest Amendments and clarifying law
[iii] Suggest codification of law
In course of 2 years, Committee submitted the drafted bill along with its report. The Bill was referred to Joint Select Committee of Parliament. After detailed discussions and with few changes, the bill was passed in 1971 by Parliament as ‘Contempt of Court Act, 1971’. This act deals with the various forms of contempt and Punishment for the same. The Preamble of the act is read as “An Act to define and limit the powers of certain courts in punishing contempt of courts and to regulate their procedure in relation thereto.” The Act provides details of Classification of contempt, punishments and procedure to be followed.
Civil and Criminal Contempt:
In the act, Contempt have been classified majorly under 2 domains: [i] Civil [ii] Criminal
- Civil Contempt: According to section 2[b] of the act “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. It means when an individual willingly disobey the court orders and proceedings, he/she can be punished for civil wrong.
In this contempt, Court seeks remedy through force the person to comply with the orders by putting on sanctions and fines. Imprisonment is not much recommended in civil case. But if the person still fails to comply with court, a maximum of 6 months imprisonment can be granted.
- Criminal Contempt: It is well defined under Section 2[c] of the act.
(c) “Criminal contempt” means the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which—
(i) scandalises or tends to scandalise, 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.
It includes those offences which undermine the Majesty of Court or bring disrespects to it. It also includes disrespect of a judicial officer or of his post. It is of criminal nature. For this, the person can be punished with imprisonment.
The Objective of the act was:
[I] To regulate the procedure for imposition of appropriate punishment within quantum fixed by law.
[ii] To ensure dignity of court so that obedience becomes a matter of course
To protect machinery of justice and interest of people.
To uphold the dignity of courts. Unless the court is able to protect its own dignity, it is a far cry that it could instill confidence of common people in Majesty of Justice.
Its objective is not to protect the person who is a judicial officer, personal comment and drawbacks of judicial officer can be criticsed. Its objective is to protect the legacy and purity of the post of judicial officer.
Other Organs like Legislature and executive have the power to protect themselves from interruption or critizing and public arrest. But Judiciary has only 1 way to protect its honor and uphold its dignity i.e. Contempt of Court. It increases the importance of this act.
[i]As per the observations of Justice Wilmot in R. v. Almon made as early as in 1765:
“… And whenever men’s allegiance to the law is so fundamentally shaken, it is the most fatal and most dangerous obstruction of justice, and, in my opinion, calls out for a more rapid and immediate redress than any other obstruction whatsoever; not for the sake of Judges, as apricate individuals, but because they are the channels by which the King’s justice is conveyed to the people.”
Constitutional Validity of the act:
In complementary to the act, the act also finds its essence and validity in certain Articles of the constitution.
Article 129: Grants Power to Supreme Court to punish for Contempt of Court itself
Article 142(2): Enables Supreme Court to; to investigate and punish any person for contempt.
Article 144: Advises Civil and judicial authorities to act in aid of Supreme Court
Moreover, Article 255 ensures continuity of Contempt of Court Act.
Article 215: Grants power to high court to punish for Contempt of Court.
Also, Section 10 of the “Contempt of Court Act, 1971” grants every High Court the power to exercise Jurisdiction, power and authority.
[ii]As per rule 3 of Rules to Regulate Proceedings for Contempt of the Supreme Court, 1975. There are 3 ways to start proceedings for Contempt of Court:
[i] Suo motu; or
[ii] On a petition made by Attorney General, or Solicitor General; or
[iii] On a petition made by a person and in the case of a criminal contempt with the consent in writing of the Attorney General or the Solicitor General.
Time to time, questions were raised on validity of the act, is it necessary to carry on with a concept prevalent in English law whose main purpose was to suppress the voice of Indian during British colonial period. And from time to time, Supreme Court has passed orders explaining its importance and found the act constitutionally valid.
Arguments against Contempt of Court
Despite Constitutional validity and Supreme Court judgements, the act and concept has been criticized on several arguments:
- Suppression of Freedom of Speech: Contempt of court laws can sometimes be seen as a restriction on freedom of speech and expression. Critics argue that these laws may discourage open criticism of the judiciary or hinder public scrutiny of court proceedings, potentially impeding transparency and accountability.
- Subjectivity and Ambiguity: The concept of contempt of court can be subjective and open to interpretation, as it encompasses a wide range of behaviors. The lack of clear guidelines on what constitutes contempt can lead to inconsistency and potential abuse of power in applying these laws.
- Disproportionate Punishments: The punishments for contempt of court can vary widely, ranging from fines to imprisonment. Critics argue that in some cases, the punishments imposed for contempt may be disproportionate to the offense committed, leading to concerns of excessive punishment and potential violations of human rights.
- Chilling Effect: The fear of being held in contempt of court can create a chilling effect, discouraging individuals from participating in or reporting on legal proceedings. This could hinder public engagement with the justice system and limit the flow of information.
- Impediment to Fair Trials: Contemptuous behavior by individuals involved in a trial, such as jurors or witnesses, can disrupt the proceedings and potentially impact the fairness of the trial. However, critics argue that contempt of court laws should not be used as a tool to suppress legitimate challenges or criticisms that may arise during a trial.
It is important to note that contempt of court laws vary across jurisdictions, and the application and implications of these laws can differ. The negative points mentioned above are not universally applicable but highlight some concerns associated with contempt of court in general.
‘A slap on face of judicial officer is; in fact slap on face of Justice delivery system’ as stated in judgement of ‘Prem Surana vs. Addl. Munsif & Judicial Magistrate’. Courts are regarded as temple of justice. A person who feels helpless, cheated or discriminated approaches the gates of court. Because of his believe that his/ her voice would be heard and he will get justice. But on the other hand, Courts system seems difficult to understand by most of general public and justice seems beyond the reach of poor. Yes, judiciary has some shortcomings that cannot be denied. But it is also important to hold the dignity of court. No simple fellow being should be allowed to criticize the higher court and say anything what he wants in the name of Freedom of Speech and expression. No right is absolute and so no act or offence. A balance must be created between healthy criticism and Court’s dignity.
References and Citations
Contempt of Court: Ranadhir Kumar Dhe, 4th edition.