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w.e.f. from 24th December, 1971


The presiding Judge or judicial officer in a Courtroom is called “His/Her Lordship” or “Your Honour”. If any of us have wondered why advocates address them so, they do not mean to please the judge so as to obtain a ruling in their favour. The judge and the advocate might have been batchmates at law school, friends or even acquaintances. But when a person is acting in the capacity of a judge or a magistrate, respect must be rendered for the office which that person holds. The office is that of a supreme decision-maker or an interpreter of law.

When there is lack of respect or highness tendered to that office of a judge, the act of contempt comes into existence. The act of contempt, in layman terms, means any act or omission of a person that tenders or is meant to tender any form of disrespect to the Court. The Contempt of Court Act, 1971 regulates the proceedings upon commission of such act or omission.

Main contents of the Act:

“Contempt” as defined by the Court in Attorney-General v. Times Newspapers Ltd. “is a generic term descriptive of conduct in relation to particular proceedings in a court of law which tends to undermine that system or to inhibit citizens from availing themselves of it for the settlement of their disputes.” The Contempt of Court Act, 1971 (hereinafter referred to as “the Act”) applies to the whole of India except Jammu and Kashmir unless there is a special contempt of the Supreme Court to which the provisions of this Act will apply. Due to the ineffectiveness of Article 370 of the Constitution of India, this rule will not apply however. The Act classifies contempt into civil and criminal contempt, and provides for certain exceptions which exempt a person’s liability. Acts which amount to innocent publication or distribution of matter, publication of fair and accurate reports of happenings of the Court and fair criticism of the judicial proceedings are excepted by the Act of 1971 itself.

The law of civil contempt is rather simple. It arises when a direct court order or notification or summon is disobeyed beyond reasonable claims. However, criminal contempt is slightly complicated. It consists of
(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 (Section 2(c)).

Criminal contempt is further classified into direct and constructive criminal contempt. Direct or in the face of the Court is in the view of or within the precincts (Section 14) of the Court and constructive is outside the view of the Court (also stated by the Act as “other cases” under Section 15). The difference lies in the proceedings of the two forms of contempt. The former is one where the Court directly charges the contemner and delivers verdict whereas in the latter one, a complaint must be filed by, or with the consent of, the Advocate General. If the Advocate General refuses to give consent for institution of complaint by a private person, his actions are justiciable. For the purpose of hearing contempt proceedings, all civil, criminal and revenue courts fall within the contempt jurisdiction along with the Supreme Court and all High Courts as under Arts. 129 and 215 of the Constitution.

This Act provides for proceedings against a person held in contempt. It declares certain acts to be outside the ambit of contempt and also states that a judge or a magistrate acting in his judicial capacity is also liable to be held in contempt if his acts are in consonance with those provided hereinunder (Section 16 of the Act). This Act does not apply to Nyaya Panchayats and other village Panchayat institutions. The older Contempt of Court Act, 1952 was repealed by this Act which came into effect on 24th December, 1971.

History of law of contempt of court in India:

Article 129 of the Indian Constitution declares the Supreme Court of India to be a court of India and further conveys the power to punish for contempt of itself. This power has been interpreted to be able to punish for contempt of High Court as well. A court of record is one whose documents and other observations can be used as evidence and cannot be questioned by any other court. Since this importance is given to the Apex Court, any person questioning the validity of such documents in any form or disrespectful manner is liable to be held in contempt. Any statements made against the records of a court of record (which are of evidentiary value) may amount to contempt of Court. A corresponding power has been granted to High Court under Article 215 of the Constitution.

Philosopher Kautilya’s Arthasastra contains a verse that goes as follows: “Any person who exposes the king or insults his council or make any type of bad attempt on the kings then the tongue of that person should be cut off.” The Court of the King was to be revered and every word stated therein was to be given importance. Adding to this statement, he also said that “When a judge threatens, bully or make silence to any of the disputants in the court then he should be punished.”, which further clues in that the judge in his judicial capacity may also be held in contempt of his own actions.

Statutory provisions regarding contempt of court were first passed in 1952 (Contempt of Court Act, 1952). This Act repealed an older Contempt of Court Act, 1926 which was prevalent in Rajasthan and the state of Saurashtra. The limitations of these two Acts were that the term “contempt” was not defined in both of them. The law of contempt has to be dealt in consideration with two Fundamental Rights granted by the Indian Constitution – the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right of liberty.

In 1961, the Sanyal Committee was created because of a Bill introduced in the Parliament. The Committee was to strengthen the rules of contempt of court and to make strict rules regarding the same. The Committee submitted its final report on 28th February, 1963 which was the brainchild of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971.

The benefits of the Act:

This Act has been promulgated via a Bill at Parliament of India in the year 1971 with a goal to outline as to what amounts to Contempt of Court. The statute ambitions to place a limit on the powers of certain Judicial courts in punishing contemners under contempts of courts and to regulate the process when it comes to Petitions on Contempt of Court. Dr Ambedkar has justified the explicit presence of power to punish for contempt under Article 129. The draft Article 108 (draft for Art. 129) did not contain the explicit power to punish for its contempt. However, he argued that this principle was followed by the English Courts through principles of common law. So, he felt the need to incorporate the same into draft Article 108.

The event of public interest lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan being held in contempt of court by a suo motu action of the Supreme Court is a classic example of contempt. The advocate had posted a picture of the then Chief Justice of India SA Bobde on a motorcycle. Re: Prashant Bhushan and Anr. case was regarding locating that power. Bhushan relied on the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 and The Rules to Regulate Proceedings for Contempt of the Supreme Court, 1975 to delineate the court’s contempt power and flag procedural lapses in his case. However, the Court was not convinced. It looked at the Constitution to respond. The Apex Court found him guilty and fined him for Rs. 1 failing which payment, the advocate would be imprisoned for a period of 1 month.

Objectives of the Act of 1971

The objectives of the Act as thereinunder contained are “to define and limit the powers of certain court in punishing contempts of court and to regulate their procedure in relation thereto.”. Apart from that, the need law of contempt to exist maybe summarised as follows:

  • To uphold the dignity of law courts and their majesty.
  • To sustain the confidence of the public in administration of justice
  • Not to protect individual judge or magistrate nor to vindicate his or her personal prestige.
  • For protecting his personal reputation and prestige the remedy lies in the action for libel and defamation under Section 499 of IPC.

Precedents regarding contempt of courts

There are innumerable cases that cite contemptuous acts, both civil and criminal. For example, when petitioner was granted temporary custody of his minor daughter and subsequently not present in court on given date but fleeing away out of India without permission of court, it amounted to criminal contempt on part of petitioner. When High Court directed release of pensionary benefits to petitioner and Department released same after deducting Government dues, it was due compliance of High Court direction. In Mahendra Kumar v. State of Rajasthan, a stay order gave a clear direction to the respondent contemner to prepare inventory of liquor to be auctioned incorporating the brand name of the liquor and the contemner did not do so despite repeated requests taking the plea that list of liquor had already been prepared and fresh list was not necessary as that would amount to duplication, and the original list did not contain the brand names, it was held that disobedience of the stay order was wilful arid deliberate contempt of court.

Concluding remarks:

The importance allotted to the judicial system in a democracy is paramount. Its independence is one of the primary indicators of that prominence. The law of contempt seeks to uphold the stature of the Judiciary as piously as was established by the legal visionaries of the country. The contempt law does not just differentiate contempt from non-contempt acts but also encompasses the mode of action against a contemnor of Court. This law is the guardian and protector of Courts from malicious, opinionated remarks and ill-words.

Author :

Nandhaa Kishore S, 2nd year BBA. LLB. (Hons.)