Contempt of Court: Arbitrary or Equitable

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The definition of contempt of court can be very hard to decipher. None of the Indian statutes provide for any definitive meaning of “contempt”. The Oxford dictionary defines contempt as a state of being despised or dishonor. For a layman the word contempt would mean a dislike for someone. Contempt has been given different meanings in its long jurisprudential history. Any conduct that tends to bring the authority and administration of law into disrespect or disregard or to interfere with or prejudice the parties or witness during litigation action is considered to be contempt of court. Contempt consists of any words spoken or written which obstructs or tends to obstruct the administration of justice.

There is  no proper and conclusive definition provided for in the Indian legislature. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 says that ‘contempt of court means civil contempt and criminal contempt’. Civil contempt is defined under section 2(b) of the said act and section 2(c) defines criminal contempt. As is evident there is no conclusive rule regarding what amounts to contempt of court. There is no definition with respect to what contempt is per se although the legislature does define civil and criminal contempt. From this we can conclude that what amounts to contempt depends entirely upon the court’s interpretation of the situation. What is scandalous for the court or what lowers the dignity of the court depends on it to be decided by the court itself. But the question arises whether this power to determine the contempt which rests in the hand of the judiciary is arbitrary or fair in the defined limits?

The concept of contempt is centuries old and dates back to the fifteenth century England. It was only in the Sixteenth century that term “contempt” evolved in jurisprudence. It was a principle in the English common law that protected the judicial powers of the king. Any violation of the judges orders was considered a crime against the crown itself. As time progressed the contempt of court was made punishable and actions like disobedience to the judges and obstruction to any form of judicial order were considered to be contempt of court. Since most of the laws are derived from the English common law, the law of contempt also finds its inception in the English law. The law of contempt in India can be traced back to the Regulating act of 1773. Which empowered the Mayor’s Court of Calcutta to have the same authority as a court of the English King’s Bench to prosecute in cases of contempt. The courts subsequently established throughout India had the power to punish for contempt. It was inherent in their powers as “courts of records” and the High courts of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras exercised this powers whenever their was hindrance in the administration of justice.

However they soon evolved an issue within the judiciary. The question was whether the law of contempt applied to only the High Courts or was it applicable to other subordinate courts that fell under their jurisdiction as well? To solve this issue the Contempt of Court act 1926 was enacted. The Act gave the Higher Courts Jurisdiction over the subordinate courts to adjudicate the matters with respect to contempt in a subordinate court. The same act existed in India dealing with the contempt of court until it was replaced by the Contempt of Court Act. Both of these acts did not offer much variety when it came to laws relating to the contempt of court. The latter was enacted keeping in mind the democratic structure of the country however it still had its roots in the old english law. The latter included the Supreme Court into the ambit of the Act.

1961 saw the formation of a committee under H. N. Sanya an additional solicitor general for the Government of India, to overlook and examine the application of the contempt laws in India. A major recommendation made by this committee was with regard to the initiation of the contempt proceedings. The committee recommended that the proceedings should be initiated by a law officer and not by the court itself as was the common law. These recommendations were taken up in the law commission of 1971, ten years after the committee’s formation. The new statute defined both criminal and civil contempt and laid down punitive measures for the same.

The Supreme Court and the High court have been empowered by the Constitution under article 129 and 215 respectively to punish for contempt. Contempt of court is punishable by a simple imprisonment of 6 months or a fine of Rs. 2000 or both. It is to be noted that the punishment for contempt cannot exceed the limit of a 6 month Imprisonment and the monetary fine of Rs. 2000. Furthermore it is to be noted that the imprisonment must only be given in serious offences when there has been an obvious interference with the administration of justice.

The contempt of court act also provides the defense for the contempt of court. The act states that the knowledge about the pendency of the proceedings in the court of law is of utmost importance to initiate contempt proceedings. No proceedings can be initiated with respect to any suit which is not pending in the court of law or which has already been decided. The act says that any publication of any form is not contempt which may interfere with the administration of justice but the person making such publication was unaware of the same.

The same has been mentioned in section 3 of The Contempt of Courts Act 1971. Section 4 of the act talks about the fair and accurate reporting of a judicial proceeding. This is an important section as it is necessary that the citizens of the country must be aware about the administration of justice by the courts of the country and this must be reported on a day to day basis. Fair and accurate reporting of the judicial proceeding is a defense for contempt of court and is a remedy to the principle of Ignorantia Juris non-excusat.

Any other form of criticism which is done without any ill will or malice can also be used as a defense for contempt of court. Section 5 of the Act outlines that fair criticism which is done based on the proceedings and the facts and circumstances involved in the case will not amount to contempt. It is a fundamental right vetted in the Indian Constitution and fair criticism is the prerogative of all the citizens when done within reasonable boundaries. However in cases of contempt ‘Fair Criticism’ is an arbitrary and a vague term which is open to interpretation. Eventually it is the discretion of the court as to what they consider fair criticism and what is excluded from that.

The reporting of the case proceedings can also be done ‘in chamber or in camera’ and the same will not amount to contempt of court. However it can amount to contempt if the same has been denied by a ‘special order’ by the court on grounds of security or when the relevant information with respect to the case is considered as confidential and is not to be broadcast.  Section 6 simply states that any claim made in good faith with regard to any presiding officer will not amount to contempt.

The concept of contempt of court is fairly simple to understand. It safeguards and protects the judicial officers and judicial system from any unfair and unwanted down beating and criticism. While it can be perceived as an act which upholds the dignity and the integrity of the judicial institutions, the inconsistent interpretation and the discrete nature of the legislature sometimes renders it arbitrary. There have been instances where it was contended that this act is a clear violation of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution and is hence against the law of the land, but these contentions are dismissed when the need for fair and accurate criticism arrives.

There may be frivolous or genuine charges of contempt against an individual but at the end of the day the main principles that this act tries to uphold are that the administration of justice should not be hindered and people should have faith in the judicial system and that truth may prevail always which should ultimately work towards public interest.

Written By

Abhinav Mohan Goel

Law Student, New Law College, BVDU, Pune, Maharashtra

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