The term “Contempt of Court” has been defined by Oxford as “The crime of refusing to obey an order made by a court; not showing respects for a court or judge.” In other words contempt of court is a behaviour that opposes or defies the authority, justice and dignity of the court. In India, The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 deals with the offence of contempt of courts by defining and limiting the power of certain courts in punishing contempt of courts and to regulate their procedure in relation thereto.
Purpose of Contempt Jurisdiction:
It is important to uphold the image of the majesty and dignity of the law courts in the mind of public; if the image of the courts or judges gets shaken by fallacious words of a common man the adherence to the orders passed by the judicial authorities will be badly impacted. Thus, it is necessary to punish those who wilfully disobey the order, decree or judgement passed by the courts or make use of contumacious words that affects the ability of the courts to conduct its proceedings. The object for contempt jurisdiction is to protect the seat of justice more than the person sitting as judge on that seat.
Power of Contempt of Court is an Independent Power:
The Constitution of India by way of Article 129 and 215 has empowered courts for contempt, making the power of courts to punish for contempt as an independent power, which can be exercised by the courts even in the absence of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971.
Article 129 and 215 of the Constitution provides that:
Article 129: Supreme Court to be a court of record The Supreme Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself.
Article 215: High Courts to be courts of record Every High Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself.
Thus, the power to punish for contempt are inherent powers of the courts which are empowered by the Constitution and the Contempt of Courts Act only outlines the procedure in relation to investigation and punishment for contempt of court.
What Constitutes contempt of court?
In the case of, Dr. D.C. Saxena v. Hon’ble the C.J.I., J.T. 1996(6) S.C. 529 = 1996(5) SCC 216. It was held that the following acts of scandalising Court or Judge, undermining people’s confidence in administration of justice and bringing or tending to bring the Court into disrepute or disrespect tantamount to criminal contempt, scurrilous attack on a Judge questioning his authority would amount to contempt.
Contempt of Court and Freedom of Speech and Expression:
The power to punish for contempt of court does not amount to infringement of Fundamental Right of Freedom of Speech and Expression enshrined under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India as, these are not absolute rights and the State has power to impose reasonable restrictions which are necessary in the interest of general public. Power to punish for contempt of court is necessary to “secure public respect and confidence in judicial process.”However, a person cannot be held guilty of contempt of court for publishing any fair comments or criticism on the merits of any case or proceedings which has been heard and finally decided.
Types of Contempt of Court:
In India Contempt of Court are of two types: Civil Contempt and Criminal Contempt.
Civil contempt means intentional disobedience to the order of the court passed for the enforcement of the rights of the individuals or to secure remedies for parties in a civil action. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 under Section 2(b) defines civil contempt 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.”
For instance: In a suit for divorce, court directed “A”(Husband) to pay Rs. 5000 as an amount of alimony to “B”(Wife), in this case failure of “A” to pay Rs. 5000 to “B” will amount to civil contempt.
Criminal contempt involves being rude or disrespectful towards court proceedings, the Judges or attorneys in the proceedings or a behaviour that assaults the dignity of the court or affects the ability of the court to conduct its proceedings. Criminal Contempt as been defined under Section 2(c) of The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 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:
(i) Scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or
(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;
For instance: “A” who is a witness to the case shouts or insult the judge during the trial, such act of “A” will amount to criminal contempt of court.
In the case of Pritam Lal v. High Court of M.P. 1992 Cr.L.J. 1269= AIR 1992 SC 904
It has been held that an advocate making libellous allegations against sitting Judges of High Court amounts to interference with administration of justice.
Time limit for taking an action of contempt:
The time period for action of contempt has been given under Section 20 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 as one year from the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed.
Punishment for Contempt of Court:
Punishment for contempt of court has been dealt under Section 12 of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 which provides simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to two thousand rupees, or with both. However, on an apology being made to the satisfaction of the court an accused may be discharged or the punishment awarded may be remitted.
It is imperative to empower courts to punish for Contempt of Court for the purpose of securing the respect of the bench and confidence of people in justice, by laying down certain restrictions on the rights exercised by citizens under freedom of speech and expression which are necessary for upholding the dignity of the law courts and majesty in a country.