In Re Prashant Bhushan & Anr. (2020) (Contempt of Court Case)

-Case commentary

INTRODUCTION

On the 14th of August 2020, Advocate Mr. Prashant Bhushan faced the Supreme Court of India’s criminal contempt charges due to two tweets. The case gained widespread attention for the observations made by the Supreme Court. Mr. Bhushan was fined Re. 1, and failure to pay could have resulted in a three-month imprisonment or a three-year prohibition from practicing law.

Understanding Contempt of Court

Contempt, as defined in Section 2(a) of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971, encompasses civil or criminal acts, both punishable. Civil contempt involves willful disobedience to court orders or the breach of commitments made to a court. Criminal contempt includes any act, publication, or representation scandalizing the court’s authority or interfering with the judicial process or administration of justice. Section 12 outlines penalties like simple imprisonment for up to six months, a fine extending to two thousand rupees, or both. An apology from the accused to the court may lead to discharge or reduction of punishment.

Case Overview

Advocate Prashant Bhushan’s tweets on June 29, 2020, highlighted Chief Justice SA Bobde’s motorcycle ride without safety gear at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur, during a lockdown period, restricting citizens’ access to justice. Earlier, on June 27, 2020, he criticized former Chief Justices, implicating the Supreme Court’s role in the erosion of democracy. A petition filed by Mahek Maheswari through Advocate Anuj Saxena on July 2 accused Bhushan and Twitter India of contempt, alleging that his tweets undermined the judiciary’s independence and scandalized the court. Subsequently, the Supreme Court initiated contempt proceedings suo moto.

Case Proceedings and Arguments

During the proceedings, Bhushan clarified his initial tweet, expressing concern over the Chief Justice’s conduct while the Court restricted physical hearings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He argued that his criticism of past Chief Justices’ roles in undermining democratic values was a constitutionally protected expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution and not contemptuous. Bhushan raised concerns about the Chief Justice’s authority in case assignments, alleging its misuse to stifle dissent.

Issues

The central issue focused on whether Bhushan’s tweets amounted to criminal contempt of court.

Court’s Verdict

On July 22, the Court observed that Bhushan’s statements undermined the Court’s authority, particularly that of the Chief Justice, in the public eye. Finding Bhushan guilty, the Court demanded an unconditional apology by August 24. However, Bhushan filed a supplementary statement on August 24 instead. On August 31, the Supreme Court imposed a Re. 1 fine, with a deadline of September 15, 2020, for payment. Failure to pay would lead to a three-month imprisonment and a three-year ban from practicing law.

The Court stressed that while fair criticism is permissible, it is subject to reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2) for public interest. Criticizing the judiciary is not shielded under Article 19(1)(a) and can amount to contempt when it conflicts with judicial independence and respect.

PRECEDENT

Prashant Bhushan complied by paying the Re. 1 fine to the Supreme Court while preserving the right to file review petitions against his conviction and the judgment. In his review plea, he highlighted that the Court did not hint at debarring him from appearing before it during the proceedings. This deviated from the precedent set in the R.K. Anand v Registrar, Delhi High Court case by a three-Judge bench. The Apex Court in that instance emphasized the necessity of clearly informing an advocate before debarring them from court appearances, stating the nature of the alleged conduct and the consequences upon a guilty verdict.

Bhushan argued that the judiciary’s power to penalize contempt must align strictly with Section 12 of the Contempt of Court Act. However, he claimed the Court overlooked Section 30 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, setting an upper limit for sentences. In case of fine default, the imprisonment should not exceed one-fourth of the term. While the Contempt of Court Act stipulates a maximum six-month imprisonment, one-fourth of this duration amounts to 1.5 months, yet Bhushan received a three-month sentence in case of fine default.

He further contended that the additional conviction, with facts not explicitly presented to him, violated constitutional protections against double jeopardy (Article 20(2)) and the right to a fair trial (Article 14 and 21).

Bhushan maintained that under Article 19(1)(a), a reasonable person could form a genuine opinion about the Court’s functioning, the statements made regarding the four senior-most judges, and surrounding circumstances.

Perspectives on the Supreme Court’s Rulings

The Supreme Court’s judgment sparked controversy. Justice Mishra’s final rulings before retirement revealed foundational weaknesses and significant gaps in reasoning. The judgment’s flaws stemmed from the Court’s failure to fulfill its democratic pillar role, omitting responsibilities.

Disregard of Bhushan’s Response

The Court found Bhushan guilty of criminal contempt on August 14. During the August 5 hearing, Dushyant Dave, representing Bhushan, emphasized that the tweets were made in good faith and constituted fair criticism. Bhushan submitted an extensive affidavit, referencing legal provisions and cases. However, the Court largely disregarded this affidavit and deemed the tweets malicious and scurrilous.

Monopoly Over Truth

The Court seemed to wield monopoly over truth, deciding the fairness and truthfulness of criticism without duly considering the defense or materials presented.

Freedom of Speech and Expression

Article 19(1)(a) safeguards freedom of speech and expression, with Article 19(2) outlining grounds for reasonable restrictions. Contempt of court is one such restriction, but its use should aid in the administration of justice rather than silence those seeking clarifications from the court.

Right to Appeal

While Article 21 guarantees the right to appeal, the contempt proceedings were initiated by the Court itself, offering no provision for appeal in the judgment. While a review option existed, it was presented before the same Apex Court bench.

Scandalizing the Court

The Supreme Court, a powerful entity in governance and rights protection, was deemed ‘scandalized’ by the tweets. However, the judgment’s procedural irregularities and strained reasoning appeared to damage the Apex Court’s image more than Bhushan’s tweets.

Judgement Analysis:

“The case involving Prashant Bhushan’s tweets against the Chief Justice of India and the Supreme Court led to a controversial judgment by the Supreme Court on August 31, 2020.

Prima Facie View and Subsequent Proceedings:

The Supreme Court initiated proceedings based on two tweets by Bhushan, finding them undermining the authority of the Court and the Chief Justice in the public eye. Bhushan was held guilty of criminal contempt of court and was given a fine of Re. 1 to be paid before September 15, 2020, failing which he could face three months’ imprisonment and a three-year debarment from practicing law.

Legal Arguments and Review Petition:

In his review petition, Bhushan highlighted discrepancies in the court’s procedure, citing precedents where clear warnings about potential debarring were required before sentencing. He also raised concerns about the violation of constitutional rights under Articles 14, 20(2), and 21.

Court’s Handling and Controversy:

The Supreme Court’s judgment faced criticism for allegedly ignoring Bhushan’s submitted affidavits and defenses, which claimed the tweets were made in good faith as fair criticism. The court was accused of monopolizing truth and failing to consider Bhushan’s defense adequately.

Freedom of Speech and Right to Appeal:

Critics argued that while contempt of court is considered a reasonable restriction on freedom of speech and expression, the judgment might have curtailed legitimate criticism. Additionally, concerns arose regarding the limited provision for appeal within the judgment, raising questions about the right to appeal as guaranteed under Article 21.

Impact on Court’s Image:

The judgment, seen as an instance of “scandalizing the court,” drew attention to irregularities in procedures and perceived deficiencies in reasoning, which some felt could potentially damage the image of the apex court more than Bhushan’s original tweets.

The case not only sparked debates on the limits of free speech and contempt of court but also raised questions about procedural adherence, fair trial guarantees, and the role of the judiciary in managing criticism while upholding the principles of justice and constitutional rights.

Conclusion 

The power of the Court for contempt is for the administration and effective functioning of the Court and not to protect an individual judge’s self-esteem. After the judgment of the Court, Bhushan had a press conference wherein he mentioned that he would be filing review petitions against the judgments. It is concluded from the above situation that the judgments delivered were much faster as compared to others and the Court would dispose of cases at the same pace just like it did in the case of Prashant Bhushan.”

References 

Critical analysis of Prashant Bhushan’s contempt of court case https://blog.ipleaders.in/critical-analysis-prashant-bhushans-contempt-court-case/

Supreme court fines Prashant Bhushan Re. 1 in contempt of court case https://thewire.in/law/prashant-bhushan-supreme-court-contempt-re-1-fine

AUTHOR NAME- SHYAMASIS SARANGI

NMIMS SCHOOL OF LAW, NMIMS NAVI MUMBAI

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