An Analysis of the nooks and crannies of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971

For the ends of justice to meet it is always essential that the fulcrum which balances the entire judicial system should be kept at a pivotal position to maintain an equilibrium. Justice should be done not only to the conscience but also to be seen to be done hence making it more than an abstract entity.[i] It, therefore, becomes a necessity that the deliverance of the same is preserved in a manner that though visible, cannot be manipulated or altered. This is where the provisions concerning the Contempt of Court comes into play. The fact that provisions to preserve a court’s order is safeguarded not only by the Constitution but also by specific legislation corroborates and concretizes the necessity of a safeguard for the efficacious functioning of the courts and to evade any vulnerability whatsoever it may be.

The Advent of Contempt Laws and Legislative History

For Halsbury Contempt meant words, spoken or written, which could interfere with the justice administration system.[ii] Similarly, Oswald tried to give a more vivid definition wherein he stated that Contempt is any conduct that tends to bring disrespect to an authoritative position.[iii] Thus, Contempt could essentially be understood as the offence of disrespecting the authority of a court or its nodules or offshoots. Therefore anything which has the demeanour of impairing the dexterity of justice administrative system constitutes Contempt of Court. 

In the Indian Judicial System, The Contempt of Court Act, 1971 lays down basic legislative provision for monitoring the cases related to contempt of Courts. Its legislative history dates back to the Colonial Era and had its inception in form of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1926 which for the first time granted the High Courts of Judicature, the power to punish contempt of subordinate courts. Later with subsequent modifications, the Act of 1952 came into force but like its predecessor, it failed to create a substantial effect on the Indian judiciary.[iv] In 1961, a committee was set up under the chairmanship of H.N. Sanyal which introduced major modifications to the previous Act, and thus came the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, which revolutionized the Contempt laws in India.[v]

The Analysis of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971

The Contempt of Court Act 1971 was a step towards a concrete law aimed to preserve and protect the judicial system not only by preserving a court’s order but also, the person pronouncing it.[vi] Had it been without such statute every single decision of a court would be open to unnecessary diatribe. This statute essentially preserves the very basis of a judicial pronouncement which establishes a jurisprudence which though being subjective depends upon the specific application. Under this statute, it was the first time when Contempt was defined under Section 2(a) as civil or criminal contempt[vii] thus giving a very coherent explanation and proliferating its ambit of application. Section 2(b) of the Act defines Civil Contempt as: “willful disobedience of a judgment, decree, direction, order, writ, or other processes of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court”[viii] would result in civil contempt. 

Furthermore, Section 2(c) of the Act defines criminal contempt as:

 the publication (spoken or written, signs, or by visible representation) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which:

  • Scandalises or have the affinity to scandalize degrades or have the affinity to degrade the authoritative position of a Hon’ble Court, or
  •  Prejudices which interferes or have an affinity to interfere with the mechanism and procedural ordeals of the Justice Delivery and Administrative System, or
  • Obstructs or have the affinity to obstruct, in any other manner, the due course of administering justice.[ix]

Further, the Act specifies provisions to determine what does and does not constitute Contempt under Sections 4, 5, 6, and 7 and further provides for punishments for contempt under Section 10 and Section 12. It also specifies a limitation for the actions on contempt under Section 20 of the Act which is 1 year from the alleged date of publication. The scope of application of contempt has been observed in the case of C.K. Daphtary v. O.P. Gupta[x] wherein the Hon’ble Apex Court held that the test to be applied under specific cases of contempt should be whether the publication was a mere defamatory attack on the judge or whether it would act as an impediment in the course of the proper administration of justice.

Thus, this Act in its present form exhaustively covers major essentials of contempt like what does and does not constitute a contempt, specifies punishment for the same, and hence efficiently deals with the matters of contempt. The interpretation made by the various High Courts and the Hon’ble Apex Court has concretized its application making it more cogent and feasible to be pertinently applied depending upon a particular case and hence proliferating its ambit making it more viable.

A Critique of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971

To better understand this statute and critically evaluate it, it is a necessity to first acknowledge the Law Commissions’ report (Chairman: J. B.S. Chauhan) on the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. The object behind this report was to examine the statute, check its feasibility for application, and whether it was to be extended or delimited in its application. The following observations were made under this report:[xi]

  • Firstly, it was observed that the number of cases relating to contempt was high in India. Numerically speaking there were 96,993 cases of civil contempt and 583 cases of criminal contempt pending before different High Courts and the Supreme Court. Thus, one thing that is clear from this observation is that the Act becomes relevant to tackle these impediments because amending or annulling it would seriously impede the way of judicial authority to deliver justice.
  • Secondly, it was a debate to amend the Act to only acknowledge civil contempt in line with the English Laws. It was observed by the commission that the conditions in India and United Kingdom are not analogous because in the UK the last account for an offence of contempt was observed in 1931 and in India, the same is quite proximate and pertinent. Thus, it could safely be put forth that considering a large number of offences pending in line with contempt, abolishing or amending a statute which has a sole purpose to deal with matters of contempt would certainly create a loophole in the system which considering the present scenario would be of detriment to the judicial system.
  • Thirdly, the commission observed that the abolishment of the Act would leave the subordinate courts remediless. Considering this observation, it becomes quite pertinent to know the remedies available for cases of contempt. The Constitution here stands first to serve remedies under Articles 129 and 215 acknowledging the contempt of the High Courts and the Supreme Court. But these remedies are limited to the Contempt of the specified courts hence if the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 is set aside the subordinate courts would have no remedy available which they do possess by the virtue of Section 10 of the Act. Thus, in light of these submissions, it needs no further corroboration that the Act in its present demeanour stands firm to deal with offences of contempt for all levels of courts.
  • Lastly, the commission observed that the definitions specified for Contempt under this Act make its application more efficacious, and hence it needs no amendments. Now considering this observation we need to first acknowledge the depth of the definition specified under this statute. Contempt under this Act is moulded into civil and criminal hence covering a greater ambit of application which has been made more cognizable by the subsequent judicial pronouncements thus bringing in more clarity. Therefore, to retain this clarity and evade any sort of ambiguity it becomes a necessity to prevent any major amendments to the basic framework of this Act.

By the bare perusal, its provisions may seem against the fundamental right of speech and life but in actuality, they are only a legitimate restriction for the public interest and hence could not be considered bad in the eye of law.[xii] An analogy may be established between contempt laws and detention laws wherein though both are limitations over fundamental rights they do not lead to an infraction of the same because they only act as a restriction for public interest and the maintenance of justice. Section 13 and Section 16 of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 suffices to substantiate on this view and the specified provisions facilitate in the interest of the common strata by delimiting the discretionary power of the court thus corroborating that though it ellipses on the rights of individuals, it is temporary and is for the greater good.[xiii]

Conclusion

Henceforth in light of these facts and observations, it is clear that the ulterior object of the Act is to uphold the dignity of Hon’ble Courts in the minds of the populace. If by any sort of publication, the citizens are led to lose their reverence for the judge, the very confidence in the Judiciary is shaken. Thus, based upon the report of the Law Commission one thing is crystal clear that the Court of Contempt Act, 1971 stands legitimate to its objective to prevent the dishonour of the Court and hence aid in the maintainability of justice. Effectively it could be said that this statute is the protector of the position more than that of the person holding it. Therefore, considering multiple accounts of the Act being tested on the anvil of judicial scrutiny one thing is clear that it has reaffirmed its object to protect the judicial system from vituperation thus preserving its decision, upholding its dignity and making the common strata respect it. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that the Act has stood on the anvil of judiciary’s satisfaction, and bypassing these tests stood on its viability for justice and equity.


[i] Legal Service India, “The Concept of the Contempt of Court”, http://www.legalserviceindia.com/article/l255-Contempt-of-Court.html, (last accessed 15 June 2020, 03:18 PM).

[ii] A.T.H. Smith, “Intentional Contempt of Court” The Cambridge Law Journal, vol. 51, no. 2, 1992, pp. 203–206, www.jstor.org/stable/4507665, (last accessed 15 June 2020, 03:25 PM).

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Prof. Kamlesh M. Pandya, “The Concept of Contempt of Court in India”, Paripex Indian Journal of Research, https://www.worldwidejournals.com/paripex/recent_issues_pdf/2018/May/May_2018_1527572673__84.pdf, (last accessed 15 June 2020, 03:25 PM).

[v] Supra Note 1.

[vi] Supra Note 4.

[vii] S. 2(a), The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, https://doj.gov.in/sites/default/files/contempt.pdf, (last accessed 15 June 2020, 03:18 PM).

[viii] S. 2(b), The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, https://doj.gov.in/sites/default/files/contempt.pdf, (last accessed 15 June 2020, 03:18 PM).

[ix] S. 2(c), The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, https://doj.gov.in/sites/default/files/contempt.pdf, (last accessed 15 June 2020, 03:18 PM).

[x] C.K. Daphtary v. O.P. Gupta, (1971) 1 SCC 626.

[xi] PRS Legislative Research, “The Review of Contempt of Court Act, 1971”, https://www.prsindia.org/report-summaries/review-contempt-courts-act-1971, (last accessed 15 June 2020, 03:20 PM).

[xii] S.P. Sathe “Freedom of Speech and Contempt of Court.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 5, no. 42, 1970, pp. 1741–1742. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4360620, (last accessed 15 June 2020, 03:18 PM).

[xiii] Ibid

Pratyush Pandey from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab

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