Contempt of Court

Contempt of court is the offence of being defiant or disrespectful to the court of law. Being impolite to legal authorities in the courtroom, or rebelliously failing to follow a court order may draw Contempt of Court proceedings. A judge can levy sanctions such as a penalty or prison for someone found guilty of contempt of court.

This was in the news regarding comments made on social media against the CJI by Prashant Bhushan for which he faced criminal contempt of court. There are different aspects to this debate over contempt of court. While several countries have termed such laws as obsolete and archaic, the large number of contempt cases in Indian courts and the need to insulate and safeguard the judiciary are the reasons in favour of contempt laws.

In the age of social media, the balance between freedom of speech and anything that ‘scandalises’ the court has to be revisited. The Supreme Court and the High Courts derive their power from the constitution of India while the procedure is outlined in the Contempt of Court, Act, 1971.

The Law Commission has recommended that it should be restricted only to civil contempt.

Contempt of Court (UPSC Notes)
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Definition of Contempt of Court

Contempt of court often referred to simply as “contempt”, is the offence of being disobedient to or disrespectful toward a court of law and its officers in the form of behaviour that opposes or defies the authority, justice and dignity of the court. A similar attitude towards a legislative body is termed contempt of Parliament.

There are broadly two categories of contempt:

  1. Being disrespectful to legal authorities in the courtroom.
  2. Willfully failing to obey a court order.

When a court decides that an action constitutes contempt of court, it can issue an order that in the context of a court trial or hearing declares a person or organization to have disobeyed or been disrespectful of the court’s authority, called “found” or “held” in contempt. That is the judge’s strongest power to impose sanctions for acts that disrupt the court’s normal process.

Contempt proceedings are especially used to enforce equitable remedies, such as injunctions. In some jurisdictions, the refusal to respond to a subpoena, to testify, to fulfil the obligations of a juror, or to provide certain information can constitute contempt of the court.

What is the punishment for Contempt of Court?

A finding of being in contempt of court may result from a failure to obey a lawful order of a court, showing disrespect for the judge, disruption of the proceedings through poor behaviour, or publication of material or non-disclosure of material, which in doing so is deemed likely to jeopardize a fair trial. A judge may impose sanctions such as a fine or jail for someone found guilty of contempt of court, which makes contempt of court a process crime. Judges in common law systems usually have more extensive power to declare someone in contempt than judges in civil law systems.

What is the punishment for Contempt of Court in India?

Both the High Court and the Supreme Court of India are bestowed with the power to punish for contempt of the court.

According to the Contempt of Court Act, 1971, contempt of court can be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with a fine which may extend to two thousand rupees, or with both.

To read more about the Judiciary in India, visit the linked article.

What are the types of Contempt of Court?

There are two types of contempt of court:

  • Criminal Contempt of Court
  • Civil Contempt of Court.

Civil contempt often involves the failure of someone to comply with a court order. Judges use civil contempt sanctions to coerce such a person into complying with a court order the person has violated.

Whereas for criminal contempt of court, the charges are punitive, meaning they serve to deter future acts of contempt by punishing the offender no matter what happens in the underlying proceeding.

Criticisms against Contempt of Court

The Contempt of Court clause has been under severe criticism by former judges and lawyers as it has a negative effect on freedom of speech, being too broad and vague in its definition and lending scope for its misuse to shield the judiciary from criticisms.

In 2011, retired Supreme Court judge and former Press Council of India Chairman, Markandeya Katju, called for amendments to the Contempt of Courts Act 1971 to allow the media to report better on law and judiciary-related matters.

In March 2018, the Law Commission of India was tasked by the Government of India with re-examining Section 2 of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, which defines the offence of contempt. The Commission was asked to examine a proposal that suggested that contempt of court should be limited to cases of civil contempt, i.e. disobedience of court orders, and should not include the offence of ‘scandalising the court’, i.e. criminal contempt.

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Relevant Links

UPSC Mains General Studies Paper-II Strategy, Syllabus & Structure Topic-Wise General Studies Paper – 2 Questions for UPSC Mains
Previous Years Constitution Questions in UPSC Mains General Studies Paper – 2 Previous Years Polity Questions in UPSC Mains General Studies Paper – 2


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