Recent SC Judgement on Contempt of Court

No person shall be a judge in his own cause is the famous saying in legal theory. But the law on contempt of courts goes against this doctrine. The Supreme Court has now ruled that criticism of court does not amount to contempt of court. This is indeed a very significant move in the backdrop of several lower courts cracking down on critics, using the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 as a weapon. The Court while hearing an appeal against the suo motu proceedings initiated by a subordinate court of Jammu and Kashmir, arrived at this conclusion. The case involved the proceedings against the heads of Transparency International and Centre for Media Studies for a report published by them on judicial corruption, wherein they indicated a data where majority of the public perceived the judiciary as corrupt.

One needs to understand the ruling of the Apex Court in terms of the law of the land and the implications of this judgement.

What is Contempt of Court?

Contempt of Court refers to the offence of showing a behavior of disrespect or disobedience towards the court of law or any official therein.  The behavior opposes the authority, justice and dignity of court.

The Contempt of Court Act, 1971-History and Provisions
Introduction of Contempt of Court in India

The concept of contempt of court was born in early modern England when courts were considered to be a wing of the state than a check on the executive actions. At that time the crime of scandalizing the court was introduced along with sedition and criminal defamation.  During colonial rule, the British introduced it in India to clamp down on any act or writing published in order to bring the court to contempt or lower its authority. This was used as an instrument to charge the freedom fighters.

Later, it was incorporated as the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 seeing the uprising of a large number of rebellions against the established law and order.

Types of Contempt under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971

The Act aims to punish two types of contempt:

  • Civil contempt-It is defined under Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 as the willful disobedience to any judgement, decree, direction, order or writ of the court. The punishment for this
  • Criminal Contempt-Section 2(c) of the Act defines it as the publication (by spoken words, written material, signs, visual representation or otherwise) or doing of any act which has any of the following effects:
  • Scandalizing or lowering the authority of the Court
  • Tending to interfere with the due course of any judicial proceeding
  • Obstructing or tending to obstruct the administration of justice in any other manner.

Issues with the Contempt Law

One of the main controversies with regard to the contempt law is its capacity to curtail some of the fundamental rights. The two fundamental rights affected are right to personal liberty and the right to freedom of speech and expression. In the instant case itself the impact of applying contempt of court shall be that it will take away the freedom of individual to voice their opinion against the judiciary even if some practices are unwelcoming towards the public at large.

Ruling of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court while dealing with the issue of criticism of the judges, adopted a very liberal interpretation of the Act in order to suit it to the needs of the general public.

The Court considered two main provisions. Section 5 of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 provides for the acts which are to constitute offence of contempt. The Court observed that the provision also implies that fair criticism of any judicial act does not amount to contempt, but judges should not be targeted personally. The term “scandalizes the Court” is also very open ended and anything and everything cannot be brought within its ambit as per Section 9 of the Act.

The Court also observed that it is the public from which all state institutions derive their power and understanding the sentiments of the public or society should be ensured by the Courts in order to give decisions which are just and fair. This is the backbone of democracy and no means can be used to curtail it.

Conclusion

From the above observations, we find that the contempt law was a manifestation of the colonial rule which has more negative impacts than positive ones. It undermines the value of democracy to a great extent.

The Court’s decision gives a positive indication that the law may be struck down at some future point of time. However, it should be kept in mind that active criticisms in the name of giving opinions cannot be accepted. If that becomes the state, then there are high chances of increase in rebellion groups who will attack the courts and refuse to follow the decisions.  Thus, the law should be there but with only provisions for punishing extreme acts.

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