CONTEMPT OF COURT

CONTEMPT OF COURT

Author- Yatin Gaur

Contempt of Court essentially refers to any conduct that has the effect or consequence of curtailing, hindering & interfering with the due process & authority of law. Oswald, in his treatise “Contempt of Court,” defined contempt to be composed of any conduct that tends to be disregarding or demeaning the authority and administration of law or to prevent justice administration by prejudicing parties or their witnesses during the process of litigation.[1] Though at the same time, he acknowledges the fact that contempt of court is a multidimensional concept and has a vast scope; thus, it is hard to come out with an ideal definition.

Lord Diplock, defined the contempt of court in the following way: –

Although criminal contempt of court may have multiple aspects, these all have one fundamental similarity: i.e., it primarily involves interference with the due administration of justice, which can be either peculiar to a case or more usually as a continuing process. So practically speaking, it is not an individual court or a judge who is flouted by the Contempt of court but rather the justice itself.[2]

While According to Black’s Law Dictionary, it is the act of disparaging the court, interfering with the due process of justice administration, or defying a sentence of the court. It is a criminal offense & the offender is subjected to fines or imprisonment.[3]

 Whereas, in India under Section 2(a) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971 defines contempt of court as civil contempt or criminal contempt.

2. Origin

Contempt of Court traces back its origin to the times when the supreme power of rendering justice was vested in the hands of the King, who was considered as paramount of justice. The principles on which he used to announce his decision, were the laws of the state. So, any act of criticism or non-compliance of his decision was deemed as an attack on his authority & was punishable accordingly. But soon with the growth of the state, the population expanded & to ensure speedy & fair trial the task of administration of justice was delegated to Judges. Further, any imputation of the decision of the courts was considered as an offense accompanied with some sanctions.

In the Indian context, the concept of contempt of court owes its origin from the British Regime in India as that time the courts were the representatives of the British Monarch & were often referred to as King’s Courts or Queen’s Courts. And as a result, any non-compliance of the courts was considered as an offense against the sovereign. This was first pronounced in the judgment of J Wilmot in 1765, where all the judges said the power of contempt of court was necessary to maintain the dignity of judges and vindicate their authority. In one of the cases (Surendranath Banerjee’s case),[4] the privy council observed that “…a high court derives its power to punish for contempt from its existence or creations. It is not a power, conferred upon it by law”.

3. Legal Perspective

The Supreme Court & High Courts have been vested with the power to punish people for their contempt under Articles 129 & 215, respectively & this power is not subject to Article 19(1)(a). The scope of the power of High courts to punish contempt of its subordinate courts is further defined under section 10 The Contempt of Courts Act of 1971.[5]

4. History of the Contempt of Court

  1. Contempt of Courts Act 1926

In India, the codified law on this subject was first enacted in 1926 as Act No. 12 of 1926. But it suffered from various issues or inconsistencies such as

  1. It did not cover any provision about contempt of courts, subordinate to courts other than High Courts, such as the Courts subordinate to chief courts and Judicial Commissioners’ court.
  2. The Act also did not mention anything regarding the powers of contempt of court of Judicial Commissioners.
  3. The act also did not provide any scope for extra-territorial jurisdiction of High Courts in matters of contempt.[6]
  • Contempt of Courts Act, 1952

 The Contempt of Courts Act of 1952 aimed at eliminating the shortcomings of the 1926 Act.  The fundamental changes that were brought in by the act were as follows:

a) It laid down the definition of High court & expanded it to include Courts of Judicial      Commissioners and thus provided them with the power to punish contempt of Subordinate Courts also, removing the ambiguity.

b) Secondly, it clearly defined the scope of Jurisdiction  as the Act empowered the High Courts (including the Court of Judicial Commissioners)  to have jurisdiction to inquire into and try a contempt of itself or any court subordinate to it, irrespective of whether the contempt is alleged to have been committed within or outside the local limits of its jurisdiction, and irrespective of whether the person alleged to be guilty of the contempt is within or outside such limits. [7]

Shortcoming: But this act too failed to give any definition for the word “contempt “that made the implementation of the act vulnerable to arbitrariness and even stifled “constructive criticism” in some cases.

  • c)     Contempt of Courts Act, 1971

The contempt of courts Act, 1971, is essentially based on the recommendations of the Sanyal Committee[8]. The committee was formed under the chairmanship of Late Shri H.N. Sanyal, the then Solicitor General of India, in 1961. The Committee gave its recommendations after scrutiny of the 1952 Act and carried out a comprehensive and exhaustive study of various judgments of Supreme courts, High courts & foreign Judgements. It also made diligent efforts to strike a balance between freedom of speech enshrined in the constitution and of the need for safeguarding the dignity and status of courts and ensure due to the administration of justice. 

As a result, the Contempt of courts Act, 1971 got successful in defining the term “Contempt” and modified the term.

Section 2(a) of the Act defined contempt as follows

“contempt of court denotes civil contempt or criminal contempt;” further section 2(b) & Section 2(c) of the Act defines the civil & criminal contempt, respectively.

Apart from giving an evolved & clear definition of “contempt” it also made significant changes in procedure as well as in the application of the enactment.

5. Types of Contempt

The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 recognizes two kinds of contempt Civil Contempt & Criminal Contempt

  1. Civil Contempt

Civil contempt has been defined under Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971 according to which” willful disobedience to any judgment, direction, order, decree, writ or another process of a court or wilful disobedience to an undertaking given to a court.” So virtually speaking, when any particular act of the contemnor deprives another party of the benefit of the court order that they are entitled to receive hence interfering with the due administration of justice it is termed as civil contempt. Since the wrong is done to a specific party & not public in general hence it is an offense of private nature.  

      b)  Criminal Contempt

Criminal contempt has been stated under Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971 as “any publication (involving words, both spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any material or any other act which has the consequence of leading to or tending to: –

(i) Scandalising or lower down the authority of, any court, or

(ii) interfering or prejudicing with the due course of any judicial proceeding, or

(iii) interfering or obstructing with the due administration of justice or in any other manner.[9]

Section 2(d), while defining the term “High Court” apart from including the high court in a state or a union territory, also includes the court of the judicial commissioner in any union territory.

The Allahabad Court very well laid down the primary difference between both kinds of contempt in Vijay Pratap Singh V. Ajit Prasad[10] in which it was stipulated that “the main purpose in civil contempt, is to compel one party to do something for the benefit of the other party. Whereas, in criminal contempt, the purpose is to punish the contemnor obstructing with the due process of law & demeaning the majesty of the court, for an injury not so much to an individual or a party but the society at large[11] However, if in a civil contempt case, the decree when accompanied by fine or imprisonment & the contemnor non-compliers with the same, then it turns into a criminal contempt at the end. Such contempt is also called sui generis due to its distinctive nature of neither being purely civil nor purely criminal.[12] It was also emphasized that the differentiating line between civil and criminal contempt sometimes could be skinny and in situations, they might be even considered the same. However, in cases where the contempt is only restricted to mere failure to comply with the order of the court made for the benefit of a private party, it is purely a civil contempt.[13] While if the contemnor along with the disobedience of the order also adds defiance to the court acting in a manner amounting to an interference with the due administration of justice, the contempt committed acquires a mixed character, overlapping the nature of a civil contempt between him and his opponent.”[14]

6. Object

The object of the contempt of court is to ensure the due administration of Justice by upholding the dignity of the majesty. As the unrestricted publication of any impudent words or writing that aims explicitly at deprecating or curtailing the authority and prestige of the court if allowed can outrageously shake the faith in the judiciary, thus the offender must be punished.

7. Essentials

The necessary conditions required to determine contempt are as follows:

1. the making of a valid court order & knowledge of the order by the respondent.

2. Willful disobedience of the order in case of civil contempt to any court proceedings, its judgment, decree, orders etc.

3. Any Publication including spoken or written, or by words, or by signs, or by visible representation in case of Criminal Contempt.

4. The Ability of the respondent to render compliance.

7. Scope

In the case of M.S. Namboodripad v. T.N. Nambiar,[15] the Supreme Court explained the scope of application of the law with regards to the Contempt of court and pronounced:

The law of contempt emanates from the right of the courts to punish the person guilty of words or acts which either interfere or tend to interfere with the due administration of justice. This right is available to all the courts in India when contempt is committed in facie curiae, and in cases when contempt is committed outside the courts, this power is vested with the superior courts for their contempt as well as on behalf of courts subordinate to them. There can be various forms of contempt of court. It covers cases including insult to judges, or any act, comment that tends to prejudice fair trial by creating an impediment to officers of the courts, witnesses or the parties along with the process of the court, non- performance of duty by officer connected with the Court and scandalizing the Judges or the courts & any act whatsoever, bringing into disrespect or disregard the authority & administration of law. This essentially involves all acts which bring the Courts into disregard or dishonor, or which has the effect of violating the dignity, outraging its majesty or challenging its authority.”

Though the scope of Contempt of court is very wide, it is ascertained that contempt of court is an instrument to protect the administration of justice rather than the judge involved in its administration. This can be further evident from the following case

A case of contempt is C.K. Daphtary v. O.P. Gupta[16],  where the respondent was accused of publishing & circulating a booklet alleging Justice Shah of dishonesty and corruption while exercising his judicial function. A petition was then filed stating that the booklet has scandalised the judges who participated in the decision weakening the confidence of people in the supreme court & hence must be considered as contempt of court. The Supreme Court, while examining the scope of the contempt of court, laid down that the test in each case is whether the challenged publication is simply a defamatory attack on the judge or significant enough to obstruct  in the due course justice by the court

In another case of Paras Saklecha V. Shri Justice A.M Khanwilkar, [17] a contempt petition was filed against Chief Justice of Madhya Pradesh High Court alleging that certain specific words used by the Chief Justice A.M Khanwilkar while hearing the writ petition amounts to contempt. The Division bench, which decides the case pronounced that the act of CJ cannot be termed as Contempt of court.

In the case of V Jayarajan V. High Court of Kerala & Anr.[18] The Supreme Court rejected the appellant interpretation of Sanskrit origin of the word ‘sumbhan’ and rather recognised it as a slang considering the rural and rustic background of the audience he was addressing. The court stipulated that it expressed an intense abuse and aimed at inciting a relatively illiterate audience against the Judiciary rather than inviting, an informed and genuine discussion or criticism of judgments.

Then in the case of Ram Surat Singh v. Shiv Kumar Pandey [19], the Court held that the law of contempt should not be misconstrued as an instrument to cover up the inefficiencies & corruption in judicial authorities or to act as a cloak to suppress any criticism made with the bona fide intention against such officers. It emphasized that the administration of justice cannot be achieved unless respect for it is fostered and maintained.

8. Punishment for the contempt of Court

Section 12 of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971, lays down the punishment for Contempt of Court.

According to the Section 12(1) of this Act states that a person who alleged with the “contempt of court may be punished with simple imprisonment for a term not extending beyond six months or a fine maximum up to two thousand rupees, or with both:

Provided if in case an apology is made to the satisfaction of the court, punishment awarded may be remitted or the accused may be discharged,” followed with an explanation that

“A bona fide apology made by the accused shall not be denied merely on the ground that it is qualified or conditional.”

Then section 12 (2) further declares that no court has been conferred with the authority to pronounce sentence exceeding what is prescribed under section 12 (1) of the act for the contempt of itself or any court subordinate to it.

9.The 2006 Amendment

One of the significant issues with the law of Contempt of Court 1971 was that it did not provide the ground of bona fide intention or truth as a defense. Due to which constructive criticism as well as corruption in the judiciary systems, was also misconstrued as contempt of court.

In the case of B. R. Reddy vs. the State of Madras, [20]the accused was the publisher and the Managing Editor of a newspaper had attacked the integrity of a City Magistrate in an article. He described him as a bribe-taker and being in the habit of harassing litigants in various ways. He accused him of negotiating his deals through a broker. Even, some specific instances were cited. However, apart from making no attempts to establish the truth in the statement, he even failed to prove that he had exercised due care and caution and only pure hearsay. Though Of course, the facts of the case were rather unsuitable. But this case along with the series of other cases that followed finally led to an amendment in 2006 and section 13 was added which read as under

As per the Clause (a) of Section 13 Contempt of Court (Amendment) Act, 2006 any court shall not impose a sentence under this act unless it is proved that the contempt is of such a nature which can essentially interfere or tends to interfere with the due course of justice essentially.

While clause (b) of Section 13 of the Act further lays down as exception that the truth may be recognized as a valid defense if it is satisfied, that it is made with bona fide intention & is in the public interest.”[21]

10. Third Party

A third party can also be held guilty of contempt of court if it is proved that the person is an accomplice in the offense. In LED Builders Pty Ltd v Eagles Homes Pty Ltd [22] Lindgren J pronounced:

Practically speaking, it is not essential that the person responsible for aiding and abetting the contempt of court must have been served with the order breached, but rather what needs to be established is that the person accused knew the order.

11.Limitation

The limitation for the action of Contempt is provided under Section 20 of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971. It stipulates that no court shall commence any proceedings under contempt of court practice in the following two conditions

  1. When the proceedings are on its motion, or,
  2. After the alleged act of contempt has crossed the one year mark.

[1] Mriganka Shekhar Dutta & Amba Uttara Kak, CONTEMPT OF COURT: FINDING THE LIMIT, NUJS LAW REVIEW 56, (2009)

[2] Background Paper on Freedom of Expression and Contempt of Court for the International Seminar on Promoting Freedom of Expression With the Three Specialised International Mandates https://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/publications/foe-and-contempt-of-court.pdf

[3] https://thelawdictionary.org/contempt-of-court/

[4] Surendra Nath Banerjee v. The Chief Justice and Judges of the High Court at Fort William in Bengal (109-134) https://14.139.60.114:8080/jspui/bitstream/123456789/2268/1/033_Surendra%20Nath%20Banerjee%20v.%20The%20Chief%20Justice%20and%20Judges%20of%20the%20High%20Court%20at%20Fort%20William%20in%20Bengal%20(109-134).pdf

[5] https://www.legalserviceindia.com/article/l255-Contempt-of-Court.html

[6] PARLIAMENT OF INDIA ,RAJYA SABHA, DEPARTMENT-RELATED PARLIAMENTARY STANDING COMMITTEE ON PERSONNEL, PUBLIC GRIEVANCES, LAW AND JUSTICE TWELFTH REPORT

ON THE CONTEMPT OF COURTS (AMENDMENT) BILL, 2004 (PRESENTED TO THE RAJYA SABHA ON 29TH AUGUST, 2005) (LAID ON THE TABLE OF THE LOK SABHA ON 29TH AUGUST, 2005) RAJYA SABHA SECRETARIAT NEW DELHI AUGUST, 2005/BHADRA, 1927(SAKA)https://164.100.47.5/rs/book2/reports/personnel/12threport.htm

[7] Ibid

[8] https://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/reports/Report274.pdf

[9] Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971

[10] AIR 1966 All 305

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid;https://law.uok.edu.in/Files/5ce6c765-c013-446c-b6ac-b9de496f8751/Custom/P.E.%20unit_5.pdf

[15] AIR 1970 SC 2015 In defence of Court, pg 88

[16] 1971 1 SCC 626: Report of committee on contempt of courts 1963 8 hn hn https://www.coursehero.com/file/p7gj3qr/Report-of-Committee-on-Contempt-of-Courts-1963-8-HN-Sanyal-the-then-Additional/ School ,Published by National Law University, cuttack ,Uploaded By DeanStrawTurtle

[17] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/167571437/

[18] M.V.Jayarajan vs High Court of Kerala & Anr 2015 (4) SCC 81: 2015 (1) SCALE 781: 2015 (1) SLT 724: 2015 (1) Supreme 626.

[19] Rama Surat Singh vs Shiv Kumar Pandey And Ors. on 29 October, 1969 AIR 1971 All 170, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/613279/ para 25

[20] AIR 1952 SC 149

[21]fffhttps://prsindia.org/sites/default/files/1214297796_The_Contempt_of_Courts__Amendment__Act__2006.pdf

[22] 1999 FCA 1213

Image source: – https://empowerias.com/blog/daily-articles/contempt-of-court-and-associated-issues-gs:-2-empower-ias

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