What is Contempt of Court? All You Need To Know

Contempt of court checks motivated unwarranted attacks against the judiciary; penalises attempts to lower its authority

A petition has been filed before Attorney General KK Venugopal seeking sanction to initiate criminal contempt proceedings against actress Swara Bhaskar for allegedly scandalizing the court.

In her petition, social activist Usha Shetty said Bhaskar was speaking at an event "Mumbai Collective" on February 1, where she made a statement on the Ramjanmabhoomi verdict that was "derogatory and a scandalous" in nature, "putting a big question on the judiciary and their integrity to the Constitution of India".

On February 1, during the panel discussion, Bhaskar allegedly said: "We are now in a situation where are courts are not sure whether they believe in the constitution or not..."

"We are living in a country where the Supreme Court of our country states in a judgment that the demolition of Babri Masjid was unlawful and in the same judgment rewards the same people who brought down the mosque...," Bhaskar has been quoted as saying in Shetty's plea.

Bhaskar is an "influential" person and her statement smacks of a "cheap stunt of publicity" in a "deliberate attempt to turn the masses to resist and revolt against the Apex Court of India," Shetty said in her plea.

The petition was filed through advocates Anuj Saxena, Prakash Verma and Mehak Maheshwari. Incidentally, advocate Prashant Bhushan was held in contempt over tweets that were brought to the judiciary's attention by a plea filed by Maheshwari, who hails from Guna, Madhya Pradesh.

On August 14, the Supreme Court held advocate Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt over two tweets which scandalised the court. The hearing on sentencing is scheduled for August 20. The apex court observed that it would not remain a "silent spectator" when statements are made "in order to malign the image of the judiciary".

What is contempt of court?

Contempt of court is a legal mechanism to protect the judiciary from motivated and unwarranted attacks and punishes those who attempt to lower its authority.

According to the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, contempt of court can be civil or criminal. Willful disobedience or breach of a court order, judgment, decree, direction, writ or an undertaking given to court amounts to civil contempt.

Publication of any material (words, spoken, written, signs, visible representations, an act or in any manner or form) that (i) scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; (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 is considered to be criminal contempt.

Contempt of court attracts a simple punishment for a term up to six months, or a fine, or both. However, contempt maybe discharged, or the punitive action waived off if the person accused of contempt makes an apology that satisfies the court.

Also See: A Video Explainer On What Is Contempt of Court


Challenge to this act

On August 1, senior journalist N. Ram, former union minister Arun Shourie and advocate Prashant Bhushan challenged section 2(c)(i) of the act which attracts punitive action for the publication of any matter that could scandalise the court or lower its authority. The plea submitted that the impugned section was vague, manifested arbitrariness and violated the fundamental right of freedom of speech.

"…The offence of "scandalizing the court" is rooted in colonial assumptions and objects, which have no place in legal orders committed to democratic constitutionalism and the maintenance of an open robust public sphere," the plea read.

However, two weeks later, the plea was withdrawn. The withdrawal came after the Supreme Court sought an explanation from the registry officials as to why the plea was listed before a bench other than Justice Arun Mishra's which was already hearing similar cases.

Criticism against contempt of court

There are two aspects to contempt of court. While experts have maintained the importance for civil contempt – this ensures the judicial authority is not circumvented, criminal contempt has faced criticism. In an opinion piece for The Hindu, former high court judge AP Shah spoke about the "chilling effect of criminal contempt" even as he along with at least 139 others, including 10 former judges from the higher judiciary, endorsed a statement supporting Bhushan.

In supporting Bhushan, the endorsement letter criticised the top court on its "reluctance" to "play its constitutionally mandated role as a check on governmental excesses and violations of fundamental rights of people by the state."

Held in contempt

Like Bhushan, Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy is not a stranger to contempt cases. On March 6, 2002 the apex court bench comprising Justices GB Pattnaik and RP Sethi held her guilty of criminal contempt and sentenced her to simple imprisonment in Tihar Jail for one day. A fine of Rs. 2000 was also imposed on her, which if she failed to pay, would result in an extension of her prison term by another three months.

Roy was held in contempt for criticizing a 2001 top court verdict by Justices Pattnaik and Ruma Pal in another contempt case against her.

In 2015, Roy got another notice for contempt for criticizing a Bombay High Court decision rejecting Delhi University Professor GN Saibaba's bail. The Nagpur bench of the high court had found her remarks against the police, state administration and the judiciary "nasty" and "scurrilous". However, two years later, in 2017, the top court stayed contempt proceedings against Roy.

The top court has pulled up one of its own as well. In 2016, former top court judge Justice Markandey Katju was summoned to court after he criticised the SC verdict in the Kochi rape case. During the hearing, a heated argument took place, following which he was escorted outside the courtroom. A notice of contempt followed soon after. However, contempt proceedings against him were dropped after Katju submitted an unconditional apology before the court on December 10, 2016.

The dramatic case featuring former Calcutta High Court judge CS Karnan is also noteworthy. On May 9, 2017 Karnan gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first sitting judge to be held in contempt. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

In an extraordinary situation, seven senior-most judges of the Supreme Court initiated contempt proceedings against Karnan after he alleged corruption by judges of the high judiciary. Karnan had also accused eight top court judges of caste discrimination and "sentenced" them to five years rigorous imprisonment and Rs. 1 lakh fine each. The West Bengal police arrested Karnan—he had absconded soon after the top court verdict against him—on June 20, 2017 more than a month later and eight days after his retirement.

Updated On: 2020-09-05T12:27:20+05:30
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