Contempt of Court
The Supreme Court deferred the hearing in a 2009 contempt-of-court case against a senior lawyer and reserved its verdict on the quantum of sentencing in the contempt case initiated this year.
• Contempt of Court: It is a concept that seeks to protect judicial institutions from motivated attacks and unwarranted criticism, and as a legal mechanism to punish those who lower its authority.
• Types of Contempt:
o The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 divides contempt into civil and criminal contempt.
o Civil contempt is fairly simple. It is committed when someone wilfully disobeys a court order, or wilfully breaches an undertaking given to court.
o Criminal contempt is more complex. It consists of three forms: (a) words, written or spoken, signs and actions that “scandalise” or “tend to scandalise” or “lower” or “tends to lower” the authority of any court (b) prejudices or interferes with any judicial proceeding and (c) interferes with or obstructs the administration of justice.
• It is a legal mechanism to punish those who lower the authority of judicial institutions.
• The punishment for contempt of court is simple imprisonment for a term up to six months and/or a fine of up to ₹. 2,000.
• The Supreme Court has power to punish for contempt not only of itself but also of high courts, subordinate courts and tribunals functioning in the entire country.
Constitutional and Legal provisions:
The Constitution of India, under Article 19(2), has made contempt of court as one of the restrictions on freedom of speech and expression.
Article 129 and Article 215 conferred on the Supreme Court and the High Court the power to punish the guilt for contempt of Court.
The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, gives statutory backing to the concept of Contempt of Court. The act was later amended in 2006 to introduce truth as a valid defence, if it was in public interest and was invoked in a bona fide manner.
The Act under Section also empowers the High Court to punish in order to contempt of subordinate courts.
Under Article 19(2), only “reasonable restrictions” may be imposed on Article 19(1)(a) freedom by a legislature by enacting legislation. Restrictions cannot be imposed on Article 19(1) (a) freedoms directly by the judiciary or the executive. The judiciary is only to interpret and apply the restrictions imposed by the legislature.
Accordingly, pursuant to Article 19(2), Parliament enacted the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, imposing, inter alia, “reasonable restrictions” on speech and expression that amounts to criminal contempt. Therefore, under Article 19(2), any restriction on speech and expression on the grounds of criminal contempt may be imposed only under the Contempt of Courts Act.
As a result, when the Supreme Court is not acting under the Contempt of Courts Act, it has no power to restrict contumacious speech or expression. The Supreme Court may punish other acts of contempt under its Constitutional contempt power, but not ‘speech and expression’.
Paradigm of an all-powerful judiciary sending down bolts of righteous wrath on a cowering populace needs to be set aside and the emerging complex issues involving free speech, restriction on liberty, truth as defence and inclusion of mens rea, need to be debated in the arena of criminal contempt jurisprudence in India.
PEPPER IT WITH
Contempt of a legislature, Court of Records, Art. 124, 129, 214, 215; Judicial Review, Judicial Activism, Doctrine of Prospective Overruling, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971