According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 'contempt of court' means 'the offence of being disobedient to or disrespectful of a court of law'. In India, the legal provisions regarding contempt of Court are contained in The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. According to the statute, there are two kinds of contempt of Court:
Criminal contempt of Court has been defined under S.2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. The definition that is provided in the section is:
"The publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which-
For any such word, publication, representation etc. to be considered as being in contempt of Court, it must be deemed to have undermined the authority of the Court or interfered with the due course of law or obstructed the administration of justice. The Court has been vested with the discretion to decide what can be considered as criminal contempt of Court for the reason that the parameters provided in the definition are open-ended and subject to interpretation. The Hon'ble Supreme Court of India has stated that the definition of criminal contempt is wide enough to include "any act by a person which would tend to interfere with the administration of justice or which would lower the authority of the court."
An act of criminal contempt of Court is punishable by law after following the due procedure.
Sections 14 and 15 of The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, deal with the proceedings to be followed when contempt is in the face of a court on record and when it is outside the Court, respectively. S.14 provides that the Supreme Court or the High Court may inform the person, who they consider having acted in criminal contempt, of his charge. The person will then be allowed to present his defence, and after taking all evidence, the Court will give judgment as it sees fit. The person may be detained pending judgment if the Court gives the order to that effect. In S.15 it has been stated that for an act of contempt outside Court, the Court can suo motu (by its motion) take notice of the matter or on the motion of the Advocate General or the motion of any other person with the consent of the Advocate General.
Criminal contempt of Court may be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to two thousand rupees. But the accused may be discharged or the punishment awarded may be withdrawn if an apology is made to the satisfaction of the Court (S. 12).
According to S.13, 'justification by the truth' will be held as a valid defence if the Court is satisfied that it is in the public interest and the reason of using this defence is bona fide (in good faith). Section 3-6 other layout defences against criminal contempt. The fact that the defendant did not know of the pendency of a case, the facts of which he published that had the potential to undermine the judicial proceedings, is allowed to be a defence, or if no such case was pending at the time of publication. (S.3) If a person publishes a fair and accurate account and criticism of a judicial proceeding at any of its stage he will not be held in contempt. (S.4) The exception to this is provided in S.7 that the proceedings have to be in public and not secret or in-camera. A person will not be held in contempt if he publishes a fair comment on the merits of a case already heard and decided (S.5). A person shall not be guilty of contempt of Court if he makes a bona fide complaint concerning the presiding officer of any subordinate court to the High Court or any other court subordinate to the High Court (S.6).
In J.R. Parashar vs Prashant Bhushan, a written petition was filed against Prashant Bhushan, Medha Patekar and Arundhati Roy for sitting in dharna in front of the Supreme Court and allegedly shouting abusive slogans in protest against a verdict of the Court. J.R. Parashar filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). The Supreme Court held that while holding a dharna to protest a decision of a court may not per se amount to contempt, it must be discouraged as it's an inappropriate form of protest. The judgment was made in favour of the respondents, and they were found not guilty of criminal contempt of Court.
In the case Re Arundhati Roy, it was observed that the Constitution of India guaranteed freedom of speech and expression to every citizen of the country as a fundamental right, but while guaranteeing such freedom, it has provided that the Supreme Court shall have the power to punish the person guilty of contempt of Court
In Re Prashant Bhushan on August 31, 2020, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan was found guilty of criminal contempt of Court by the Supreme Court for criticizing the Chief Justice and the highest Court of India in two tweets.
The higher courts in India have been given the power of charging a person of criminal contempt under prescribed circumstances to maintain law and order and ensure the smooth administration of justice. Law on criminal contempt may also discourage individuals from making any move to obstruct justice or undermine the judiciary. However, it has to be remembered that the arbitrary use of this power is undesirable as it may have the opposite effect and lower the faith of the public in the judiciary.
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