Nov 19, 2020

The literal meaning of "Contempt” is disobedience or disregard to something, and the same meaning of this word is used in the legal sense. When one says contempt of Court, it means disregard and disobedience of the Court. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 under Section 2 gives a proper and elaborated definition of what is contempt of Court and what comes under its ambit, According to Section 2 of the Act, Contempt of Court is of two types: 1) Civil Contempt and 2) Criminal Contempt. Section 2 further explains civil contempt as willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or another process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court and criminal contempt as the publication of any matter or the doing of any act which: a) scandalizes or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court, b) prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding, c) interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner. From this definition, we can infer that its ambit is wide enough to deal with matter occurring in this new era of technology and advancement. Still, there are also exceptions provided under the act of 1971 in case of innocent publication and distribution of some matter, fair and reasonable criticism and according to the amendment made in 2006 statements made in good faith are also exempted from being termed as contempt of Court.

Based on this definition, we can put forth certain necessary ingredients to constitute an offence of contempt which are:

  • Interference with administration of justice: it was clear from the definition that interference with the administration of justice is going to constitute the offence, and it is not necessary to prove the actual interference. Still, merely intention to interfere will also constitute the offence.
  • Scandalizing the Court: it was observed that vilification of judges constitutes contempt, but it is to be seen that defamation of judges is as a judge or as an individual, in the latter part it does not constitute contempt but in former it will. The Court also held that mere criticism of the Court does not constitute contempt.
  • Interference with due course of justice: it will constitute an offence if the act or words of a person are going to affect the due course of justice. The Court observed that no one could claim immunity from the law of contempt if his act or conduct about the Court interferes or obstructs the due course of justice.

Powers to the Court to deal with matters of contempt are provided not only under Contempt of Court Act, 1971 but also under Constitution of India. There are several provisions under the Constitution of India which imparts power to the Court to punish in a matter of contempt of courts such as Article 129 grants power to the Supreme Court to punish for contempt of itself and Article 215 imparts power in the High Court to punish for its contempt. Further Article 142(2) again imparts power in the Supreme Court to investigate and punish for its contempt. In addition to Article 215 of the Constitution of India, High Courts are also empowered by Section 10 of the Act of 1971 to punish for contempt of lower courts. The article under the Constitution does not define contempt and only grants power to courts for punishing in case of contempt. Still, the provision of punishment and fine is provided by Contempt of Court Act, 1971, under Section 12. It extends to simple imprisonment, which may extend to six months and fine, which may extend to two thousand rupees. Further Section 12 also provides for discharge or remittance of punishment on presenting as an apology to the satisfaction of the Court, which must be bonafide. 

If we see basic needs behind the provision of contempt, very basic are that it is to uphold the dignity of the Judiciary and to help judges to perform their duty of imparting justice without any fear, ill will, favour and affection. On the other hand, these contempt provisions are in conflicts with two most important fundamental rights of a citizen that are freedom of speech and expression and right of personal liberty as fundamental rights provides the freedom to express but on the other hand contempt provision curbs these rights of a citizen to express its view on the functioning of the Court. These provisions of Constitution and Act of 1971 must be dealt with caution and after scrutiny by the committee as the law is very subjective and can be used by Judiciary to suppress the voice of people who are fairly criticizing its work.

There are also certain criticisms against contempt provisions which are first that this particular law is reminiscent of the British colonialism and now even it has been repealed by British and so should be done by India. Secondly, there should be deletion of words "scandalizing of the court" and contempt should be restricted to "willful disobedience" only. Thirdly, it can be used by Judiciary to suppress the right voice, and there can be judicial overreach and lastly due to the high number of contempt cases pending before courts judiciary is overburdened. But based on the reports of the law commission of 2018, these powers of the Supreme Court are independent of contempt provision and even after deletion of these provisions, inherited powers under the Constitution will be there. It will even leave a legislative gap. In the case of judicial overreach, there are safeguards provided by the act of 1971. It was also observed by commission that this provision has stood to the test of judicial scrutiny for five decades.

Based on all these aspects we can say that Judiciary instead of suppressing the voice of people should focus on its way forward to impart justice and hold high its prestige according to the powers imparted by the Constitution to it by making it one of the most powerful Supreme Court in the world. There are certain aspects on which Judiciary must focus to make itself more transparent and available to the people such as: to make heterogeneous nature of the Judiciary and by giving equal representation to everyone in every aspect whether that of strata, age, gender, minority or religious, to make more structure for ensuring accountability and justice and to follow the principle of natural justice, i.e. hearing both sides and no one should be the judge to his case and another aspect judiciary should more upon is that of removing opaqueness and cloistered such as done by including the office of Chief Justice of India under the ambit of RTI.