Contempt of court
A three judge bench has taken suo moto notice of a post by Advocate Prashant Bhushan and issued a contempt notice of court to him “for undermining the dignity and authority of the institution of Supreme Court in general, and the office of the Chief Justice of India in particular”.
What is ‘contempt of court’?
- Contempt of court, often referred to simply as “contempt“, is the offence of being disobedient to or disrespectful toward court of law and its officers in the form of behaviour that opposes or defies the authority, justice and dignity of the court.
- Article 129 and 215 of the Constitution of India empowers the Supreme Court and High Court respectively to punish people for their respective contempt. Article 19 that empowers the citizens with freedom of speech has put a reasonable restriction over their speech with contempt of court added as a reasonable restriction on the same.
In India contempt of court is of two types
Civil contempt : Under Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971, civil contempt has been defined as wilful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court.
Criminal contempt : Under Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971, criminal contempt has been defined as 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 –
- Scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court, or
- Prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with the due course of any judicial proceeding, or
- Interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.
Analysing the case
- The suo motu initiation of contempt proceedings against lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan—for two tweets in which he criticised members of the bench at the apex court, including CJI Bobde—grates against the idea of judicial nobility and prudence.
- At a time when the ‘Indian-normal’ course of justice—3.5 crore cases are pending across courts at present—has been further delayed due to the pandemic, it is difficult to fathom why the SC believed a contempt case was more important. There are many cases pending that perhaps deserves the court’s attention more.
- Contempt of court has been discarded entirely or significantly whittled down by countries such as the UK and the US. And yet, at a time when the Indian contempt law is being reviewed by a committee on reforms of the criminal justice system, the apex court has endorsed it with its action.
Analysing the action
- While the apex court has made the application of the sedition law subject to certain conditions, it has hardly demonstrated similar willingness to make contempt of court contingent upon, say, obstruction of justice.
- In 1998, the apex court had ruled that no Act of Parliament can take away the power of the SC and the High Courts to punish for contempt and, in 2000, in T Sudhakar Prasad, it ruled that the powers of contempt are inherent in nature and the Contempt of Court Act is merely in addition to the Articles 129 and 215 of the Constitution.
- It is true that a strong judiciary, one that is not maligned simply by pleading freedom of speech, is vital to a democracy. But, the SC itself, in Shreya Singhal (2015), had nuanced what freedom of speech meant in the context of social media.
- Besides, while the 274th report of the Law Commission notes that “attacks on the personal character of a judge is “punishable contempt”, it also says that the ‘very nature of the power (to determine and punish contempt) casts a sacred duty on the Courts to exercise the same with greatest care and circumspection’.
- The SC itself, in Baradakanta Mishra (1974), had laid down a litmus test for determining contempt; it should be seen if the alleged matter does wrong to the judge personally or to the public—“the key word is ‘justice’, not ‘judge’”.