Contempt of Court in India: An Overview of the Act and Its Provisions
Contempt of Court refers to any behavior that disrespects or obstructs the functioning of the judiciary. It is classified into two types, civil and criminal contempt, and is punishable under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 in India.
History and Establishment of the Contempt of Courts Act
The concept of contempt of court was established in common law and can be traced back to colonial legislation in India. The earliest recorded penalties for contempt were contained in the Regulating Act of 1773, which stated that the newly formed Mayor’s Court of Calcutta would have similar powers to a court of the English King’s Bench to punish persons for contempt. Over time, High Courts established in Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras as courts of record exercised the power of contempt to penalize persons for interfering with the administration of justice.
The Contempt of Courts Act 1926 affirmed the power of High Courts to penalize contempt against subordinate courts as well as against their own judgments and proceedings. This Act was replaced by a new legislation of the same name in 1952, which expanded the power to punish for contempt from High Courts to other courts as well.
The Constitution of India, enacted in 1950, specifically established the Supreme Court of India and High Courts in the states of India as courts of record with the power to punish for acts of contempt. In 1971, the Parliament of India enacted the current legislation governing contempt of courts in India, the Contempt of Courts Act 1971.
Civil and Criminal Contempt
The Contempt of Courts Act 1971 categorizes the offense of contempt into civil and criminal contempt. Civil contempt, as defined in Section 2(b) of the Act, is “wilful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court”.
Criminal contempt, defined in Section 2(c), includes acts that “scandalize, or tend to scandalize, or lower or tend to lower the authority of, any court”, or “prejudice, or interfere or tend to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding,” or “interfere or tend to interfere with, or obstruct or tend to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner”.
Procedure for Trying Cases of Contempt
The procedure for trying cases of contempt of court is outlined in the Contempt of Courts Act 1971. Proceedings can be initiated by courts suo motu, i.e., by themselves, and require a written notice to be sent to the person alleged to have committed contempt to appear before the court. Persons accused of contempt have the right to be heard in their defense, and courts can hear evidence regarding the case as well. Detention in custody is permissible during a trial for contempt.
When contemptuous acts or words are alleged to have occurred outside a courtroom, proceedings for contempt in the High Courts or Supreme Courts can only be carried out with the permission of the relevant law officer. In the case of High Courts, the consent of the State’s Advocate General is required, and in the case of the Supreme Court, the consent of either the Attorney General of India or the Solicitor General of India is required.
Defenses to Charges of Contempt
The Contempt of Courts Act allows three defenses to charges of contempt. It provides an exemption for those who innocently publish or commit acts that would otherwise amount to contempt, if they reasonably believed that there were no ongoing judicial proceedings regarding these acts, or if they reasonably believe that the content of their words or actions did not contain anything contemptuous. The Act also specifically exempts fair and accurate reporting on judicial proceedings, and fair criticism of the judiciary. In 2006, the Contempt of Courts Act 1971 was amended to allow truth as a defense to contempt, provided that the person claiming this defense was acting in public interest.
Punishment for Contempt of Court
Both civil and criminal contempt share the same punishment under the Contempt of Courts Act 1971. Section 12 of the Act allows for a maximum term of imprisonment for six months, and this can be supplemented with a fine of up to ₹2000.
In conclusion, the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 in India serves as a safeguard for the judiciary against behaviors that disrespect or obstruct its functioning. The Act outlines the procedure for trying cases of contempt, provides defenses to charges of contempt, and sets out the punishment for contempt of court. It plays a crucial role in maintaining the integrity and authority of the courts in India.
Implications for a lawyer for contempt of court
Contempt of court is a serious offence in India and the implications for lawyers held in contempt can be severe. The Supreme Court of India has the power to initiate contempt proceedings against lawyers and can impose penalties that include imprisonment and fines. In addition, the court can suspend or even revoke a lawyer’s license to practice.
For example, in April 2023, a lawyer named Manikandan Vathan Chettiar was held in contempt by the Supreme Court for making scandalous allegations against the judiciary on social media. The court suspended his license to practice for a period of two months, in addition to imposing a fine of ₹2 lakh.
Another high-profile case involved stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra, who was charged with contempt of court over a series of tweets criticizing the Supreme Court. Though not a lawyer, this case demonstrates the seriousness with which the courts regard contemptuous actions and the potential consequences for those found guilty. Kamra was found guilty and sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
The implications for a lawyer’s license to practice, however, can vary depending on the specifics of the case and the decision of the court. Contemptuous behavior could potentially lead to suspension or revocation of the license. This underscores the importance of maintaining respect for the court and the legal process.
The power to hold individuals in contempt of court, including lawyers, is a fundamental aspect of maintaining the integrity of the judicial system in India. Any act of contempt can attract severe penalties, such as fines and imprisonment. For lawyers, contemptuous behavior can have grave implications, including suspension or revocation of their license to practice.
These cases underscore the importance of maintaining respect for the court and the legal process, not only to uphold the dignity of the justice system but also to avoid serious professional consequences. It sends a clear message to all individuals, especially those in the legal profession, that any form of contempt of court will not be tolerated and will be met with appropriate action.
The judiciary, being an institution of great importance and sensitivity, deserves the highest level of respect and decorum. Lawyers, as officers of the court, are expected to exemplify these qualities in their conduct, both inside and outside the courtroom. This serves as a reminder that the license to practice law is a privilege that carries with it certain responsibilities and standards of behavior.
In summary, the implications of contempt of court for a lawyer’s license to practice in India are serious and can potentially disrupt a lawyer’s career. It is therefore crucial for lawyers to be aware of these potential consequences and to conduct themselves with the appropriate respect for the court and the legal process.