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The review of Contempt of court

According to the Oxford Dictionary, contempt is the state of being despised or dishonored; disgrace. Any conduct that tends to bring the authority and administration of law into disrespect or disregard or to interfere with or prejudice parties or their witness during litigation is considered to be contempt of court, says Oswald.

Contempt is defined by Halsbury, as consisting of words spoken or written which obstruct or tends to obstruct the administration of justice.

The Indian legislature does not provide with a concrete definition of contempt, however section 2(a) of The Contempt of Courts,1971 says “contempt of court means civil contempt or criminal contempt”.

Section 2(b) & section 2(c) of The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 defines civil and criminal contempt. Although the legislature has not defined what amounts to contempt, it has defined civil and criminal contempt. Thus contempt cannot be confine to four walls of a definition.

Therefore, what would offend the court dignity and what would lower the court prestige is thus a matter which can be decided by the court itself and it’s for the court to deal with each case of contempt under the facts and circumstances of that case.

Contempt of court are classified under three broad categories, according to Lord Hardwick:

  1. Scandalizing the court itself.
  2. Abusing parties who are concerned in the cause, in the presence of court.
  3. Prejudicing the public before the cause is heard.

However, in India, contempt is classified under two major categories:

  1. Civil contempt
  2. Criminal contempt 

Civil Contempt

According to section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 civil contempt means willful disobedience to any judgement, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or willful breach of an undertaking given to a court.

Thus from the above mentioned definition it can be ascertained that there are two important essentials to constitute civil contempt:

1. Disobedience of any judgement, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or an undertaking given to the court.

There should be disobedience of a valid order to constitute contempt of court. An order includes all kinds of judgements, orders-final, preliminary, ex-parte, contempt order. Disobedience of a decree, direction, writ or other process of a court, or an undertaking given to the court, will also amount to contempt of court.

It was held by the Supreme Court, in the case of H.Puninder v. K. K. Sethi, that in absence of the stay order in appeal or revision of higher court, the order appealed against should be complied with, subject to any order passed at later stage, otherwise it is open for the contempt court to proceed further on merit of the contempt case.

Rights of undertrial prisoners in India

A different view was upheld by the Supreme Court in case of interim relief/stay order. The Supreme Court, in the case of State of Jammu and Kashmir v. Mohammad Yakub Khan, held that where stay vacation application has been promptly filed by the respondent against whom the stay order has been passed and the same is pending for disposal the court shouldn’t proceed in the contempt case unless and until the stay vacation application has been decided.

So far as the breach of undertaking as contempt of court is concerned, the basis behind this is that the contempter obtains a beneficial order for himself from the court, by giving an undertaking and if he fails to honor the undertaking at a later stage, he plays a serious fraud on the court and thereby interferes with the administration of justice by bringing the court into disrespect.

An undertaking can be given to the court in two ways:
(A) By moving an application or filing an affidavit before the court clearly stating the terms of the undertaking.
(B) By giving a clear and express oral undertaking which is incorporated by the court in the order.

A willful breach of an undertaking, given according to the abovementioned ways, would amount to contempt of court.

2. The Disobedience or breach must be willful, deliberate and intentional.

Mere disobedience or breach of the court order by the person is not sufficient to constitute civil contempt. Such a disobedience or breach must be willful, deliberate and intentional.

In order to exercise its power to punish the contemnor the court has to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the contemnor has willfully, deliberately and intentionally violated the court order.

No court including contempt court is entitled to take trivialities and technicalities into account while finding fault with the conduct of the person against whom contempt proceeding is taken.

Where the order has been substantially complied with and a reasonable explanation has been provided for the delay in compliance with the order, the contempt will not lie as the violation is not willful and deliberate.

Criminal Contempt

According to section 2(c) of The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, criminal contempt means the publication (whether by word, 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) Scandalizes or tends to scandalize, 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 obstruct or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.

Thus from the above mentioned definition it can be ascertained that there are four important essentials to constitute criminal contempt:

1. Publication of any matter.

The word publication has been given a very wide meaning so far as contempt of court is concerned. It includes words (spoken/written), signs and visible representation. It also includes the publication of any material in the newspaper and magazines, the broadcasting of any material on the radio and exhibition of anything in cinemas, theaters and television.

If these materials contain anything which scandalizes or lowers or tends to scandalize or lower the authority of any court, prejudices or interferes with the due course of any judicial proceeding or interferes or tends to interfere with administration of justice, it will amount to criminal contempt of the court.

2. Scandalizing or lowering the authority of the court. 

Scandalizing might manifest itself in various ways but in substance, it is an attack on individual judges in particular or the court as a whole, with or without reference to a particular case, by casting unwarranted and defamatory aspersions upon the character or the ability of the judges.

Such conduct is punished as criminal contempt for the reason that it tends to create distrust in the minds of common people and thereby shatters confidence of the people in the judiciary.

The Supreme Court made it clear, in the case of Arundhati Roy, that criticism which undermines the dignity of the court can’t be said to be fair criticism and does not fall under the ambit of freedom of speech and expression as is guaranteed by Article 19 (1)(a) of Constitution of India. Thus prosecution of persons for scandalizing the court is not prohibited by constitutional right of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (1)(a).

Writing/drafting in pleading or petition by which defamatory allegations have been levelled against a judge in particular or court as a whole, would amount to criminal contempt, held the Supreme Court.

In case of U.P Residential Employee Cooperative Society v. New Okhla Industrial Development Authority, the Supreme Court held that filing a false affidavit in the court with a view to mislead the court will amount to criminal contempt.

3. Prejudice or interference with the due course of any judicial proceeding.

Any publication which prejudices or interferes with the due course of any judicial proceeding would amount to criminal contempt of court. Media trial or trial by newspaper is not considered proper because it effects the fairness of trial and is likely to cause interference with the administration of justice.

The knowledge of pendency of the case and reasonable grounds to believe that the case in pending is sufficient to make out criminal contempt and the intention and motive of the publisher behind the content of publication is not relevant for the purpose of criminal contempt. If it lowers the authority of the court and causes interference with the due course of judicial proceeding it would amount to criminal contempt.

In civil cases, the pendency starts with the filing of the plaint and in criminal cases, with the filing of a charge sheet or the issuance of summons or warrants. The pendency continues till the case is decided. In case an appeal/revision is filed, pendency continues till the appeal or revision is decided. If appeal/revision is not filed, pendency continues till the period of limitation for filing the same has not expired. Once it expires, pendency is over.

4. Interference/Obstruction with the administration of justice in any other manner.

The publication or doing of any act which interferes or obstructs or tend to interfere and obstruct in the administration of justice in any other manner, would amount to criminal contempt of court. This clause is a residuary clause, covering those cases of criminal contempt which are not expressly covered by section 2(c) of the Contempt of Court Act.

The term ‘administration of justice’ is much wider than the term ‘course of judicial proceedings’. Every person in India is entitled to approach the court in order to secure justice and for the redressal of his grievances and the court has to decide dispute between the parties as per law and equity.

Any conduct which tends to prevent or actually prevents a party to approach the court, amounts to criminal contempt of court, for eg. writing a threatening letter to litigating party or his counsel preventing him from attending the court, writing a letter to the judge or approaching him in order to influence his judicial conscience or approaching a counsel for undue favor are all examples of interference with administration of justice and are contempt of court.

An advocate is an officer of the court and undue interference with the advocate in the discharge of his professional functions amounts to contempt of court. Casting aspersions on counsel or approaching him for not defending a particular person amounts to criminal contempt of court.

It was held by the Supreme Court in case of J. R Parashar v. Prashant Bhushan, that holding a dharma or resorting to strike by itself may not amount to contempt of court but if in doing so the presiding officer of the court, its staff, the police personnel and the litigating parties are prevented from approaching the court, it will amount to interference in the administration of justice and will be criminal contempt of the court.

Divyanshu Yadav
Divyanshu Yadav
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