Author: -Advocate Radhika Verma, Advisory Board Member
Wrongs are often forgiven, but contempt never is. Our pride remembers it forever. -Lord Chesterfield
In simple terms, “Contempt of Court” means the offence of being disobedient to or disrespectful towards a court of law and its officers in the form of behaviour that opposes or defies the authority, justice, and dignity of the Court.
These contempt cases are usually considered as a sort of nuisance that impedes the functioning of the Court. There has been a lot of buzz about it recently over a defamatory tweet of Senior Advocate Mr. Prashant Bhushan on the Chief Justice of India. In this case, the Apex Court took suo moto cognizance. The Supreme Court is empowered by Article 129 of the Constitution to punish for its contempt.
Very recently, Attorney General KK Venugopal has granted consent for contempt proceedings against Artist Rachita Taneja for illustrative and defamatory tweets against Supreme Court. He termed it as a “gross insinuation of the Apex Court”. In her tweets, she depicted that “Top Court” is biased towards the ruling party, and that is why protecting Arnab Goswami.
There were a lot of hues and cry over Kunal Kamra’s (stand-up comedian) tweet also which scandalised the Supreme Court. He had passed deprecating remarks on the Supreme Court in a series of tweets.
In the year 2017, Justice C.S Karnan was convicted of Criminal Contempt of Court by Seven Judge Bench of Supreme Court which sentenced him to undergo imprisonment of 6 months.
1)Contempt of Court Act of 1971
According to the Contempt of Court Act of 1971, contempt of Court is of two types:
- Civil Contempt: It is the willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ, or other processes of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court.
- Criminal Contempt: It is the publication (whether by words spoken or written or visible representation) of any matter or the doing of any other act which scandalises or lowers the authority of any court, or interferes with the due course of any judicial proceeding, or obstructs the administration of justice in any other manner.
- Punishment: The Contempt of Court Act of 1971 punishes the guilty with imprisonment that may extend to six months or a fine of ₹ 2,000 or both.
- Amendment: It was amended in 2006 to include “truth and good faith” as a defence.
It was added that the Court might impose punishments only if the act of the other person substantially interferes, or tends to interfere with the due course of justice.
We have a catena of judgments wherein underlying principles of Contempt of Court Law were laid down. Some of them are cited here:-
In Shamsher Singh Bedi v. High Court of Punjab and Haryana1, the Supreme Court held that if remarks made against the Judge are scandalous and can pervert the course of justice by interfering with the proper administration of justice, then it amounts to contempt.
In Pritam Lal v. High Court of M.P.2, the Supreme Court held that to preserve the proceedings of the Courts from interference and to keep the streams of justice pure, it becomes the duty of the Court, to punish the contemnor to preserve its dignity.
In Vincent Panikulangara v. V.R. Krishna Iyer3, a petition for initiating criminal contempt against former Supreme Court judge, Justice V R Krishna Iyer, was filed in the Kerala High Court. The complainant, an advocate, named Vincent Panikulangara, alleged that Justice Krishna Iyer had “scandalised the court” with his comments during a symposium on “judicial reforms”. He had made comments such as “as an insider, there are many things I know which I should mention in public”, “our whole judicial approach has a certain independence from civilised behaviour”, “judiciary today is non-est” etc.
The H.C. held that the comments fell in the realm of “well-informed criticism”.
In Amar Pal Singh v. the State of U.P4., while referring to Justice C.S Karnan Contempt case, it was held that “A Judge is required to maintain decorum and sanctity which are inherent in judicial discipline and restraint. A Judge functioning at any level has dignity in the eyes of the public and the credibility of the entire system is dependent on the use of dignified language and sustained restraint, moderation, and sobriety. It is not to be forgotten that independence of the Judiciary has an integral and inseparable link with its credibility.”
Article 129: 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.
Article 215: Every High 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.
The 1971 Act contains adequate safeguards to exclude instances that may not amount to criminal contempt as defined under Section 2(c) of the Act 1971.
It has believed that constructive criticism should be acceptable. However, scathing or defamatory remarks which lower the supremacy and dignity of the Court should be penalized, but this power has to be exercised wisely and judiciously to decide what is Contempt of Court or what is not. Moreover, the power to punish for Contempt of Court should not be exercised to clamp down genuine voices as it impinges the right to freedom of speech and expression, which is a fundamental right guaranteed to every citizen. Especially in a free society or progressive democracy like India, criticism of the Judiciary is inevitable.
1 AIR 1995 SC 1974
2 AIR 1992 SC 904.
3 1983 KLT 829
4 (2012) 6 SCC 491
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