Contempt of court isn't a singular offense; rather, it encompasses various
distinct categories of wrongdoing. These categories encompass a range of
actions: disruptions within the courtroom (such as hurling an egg toward a
judge), interference with the legal process (like offering a bribe to a
witness), disregard for court directives (including injunctions), violation of
the sub judice rule (such as a newspaper printing articles that seek to sway a
case's outcome), and casting disrepute upon the court (entailing baseless
criticisms or allegations of prejudice). Law Reform Commission of Canada cited
in Law of Contempt in Canada: Jeffry Miller
The Contempt of Court Act of 1971 was enacted to address the notion of Contempt
of Court. Within the framework of the Indian Constitution, Article 129 bestows
the Supreme Court with authority, while Article 215 empowers the High Court, to
take punitive action against individuals held in contempt of court. In the same
vein, Section 10 of The Contempt of Courts Act of 1971 delineates the High
Court's jurisdiction to penalize instances of contempt within its subordinate
Notably, the authority granted by Articles 129 and 215 to penalize
contempt of court stands independent of the provisions outlined in Article 19(1)
(a) of the Constitution of India. The Contempt of Courts Act prescribes
imposition of fine or jail term not exceeding six months. However, the Supreme
Court in exercise of its special powers can award any punishment prescribed In
the Contempt of Courts Act.
What Amounts to Contempt of Court?
The following interferences have been held to amount to contempt of court:
Object of Contempt Jurisdiction
- Approaching a witness summoned by the court or the opposite party for the purpose of discussion of the evidence he should give before the court.
- Attempting to bribe or intimidate judges, jurors, or witnesses.
- Arresting a witness while on his way to give evidence.
- Assaulting a witness.
- Threatening or intimidating a witness e.g., husband intimidating servant against giving evidence of instances of cruelty alleged by the wife.
- Threatening a girl witness that if she gave evidence the college authorities where she was studying as a trainee would be informed that she had given birth to an illegitimate child and have her thrown out.
- Bribing or attempting to bribe a witness.
- Plaintiffs' solicitor writing letters to persons who would probably be called as witnesses, by the defendant which contained disparaging remarks about the defendant e.g., defendant had robbed the estate.
- Victimizing during proceedings a witness for giving evidence because of the potential effect upon other witnesses' defendant e.g., employee's son suspended resulting in other employees being afraid to give evidence.
- School girl having lunch near court alter conclusion of her evidence threatened by contemner clenching his fist and telling her "You had better get out of here quick".
- Tutoring a witness in or outside the court.
- A superior official handing over a charge sheet to his subordinate who was appearing as witness in court before his examination was complete, questioning certain statements made by the subordinate in court. Giani Ram v. Ramnath Dutt, AIR 1955 Raj 123: 56 Cri LJ 1108 (apology accepted)
There can be no doubt that the purpose of contempt jurisdiction is to uphold the
majesty and dignity of law courts and to ensure that their image in the minds of
the public is no way whittled down. When words or writings that show defiance
and disrespect are used, and they cause the ordinary person to lose their
reverence for a judge who is performing his judicial responsibilities, it
results in a significant erosion of trust in the courts. In such instances, it
becomes necessary to impose penalties on the wrongdoer. The crux of the matter
is that the law of contempt serves as a guardian not just for the individual
judge presiding, but for the very institution of justice that the judge
Defenses Against Civil Contempt of Court
Defending against civil contempt of court involves addressing allegations that
you have willfully disobeyed a court order or failed to comply with
court-ordered obligations. Here are some steps and strategies you can consider
if you find yourself facing civil contempt charges:
Lack of Awareness: When a person asserts a lack of awareness concerning a court
order, they may not be deemed accountable for Contempt of Court. If one can
demonstrate genuine ignorance regarding the court's directive, liability might
Consult with an Attorney: Seek legal counsel from an experienced attorney who
specializes in contempt cases or civil litigation. They can help you understand
your rights, potential consequences, and develop a strong defense strategy
tailored to your situation.
Order is Beyond the Jurisdiction of the Court: Should an order, judgment,
decree, or direction issued by the court fall beyond its jurisdiction, and if a
person disregards such an order, they could escape liability for contempt, as
the foundation for the court's authority is absent.
The order was vague and indistinct: When a court order lacks clarity, is
ambiguous, or presents an unclear stance, an accused might find refuge from a
contempt charge, particularly if their actions were in response to the order's
Order Involves More than One Meaning: In instances where a court order can
reasonably be interpreted in multiple ways, leading to differing meanings, a
respondent who opts for an interpretation that doesn't constitute contemptuous
behavior could evade liability for the offense.
Gather Evidence: Collect any evidence that supports your claim of compliance or
reasonable attempts to comply with the court order. This could include
correspondence, records, receipts, witnesses, and any other relevant
Demonstrate Good Faith: If you genuinely attempted to comply with the court
order but faced unexpected obstacles, present evidence that shows your good
faith efforts. Courts generally consider whether you made a reasonable attempt
to fulfill the order despite challenges.
Prove Impossibility: If you can demonstrate that compliance was impossible due
to factors beyond your control, such as unforeseen circumstances or events, this
can be a strong defense against contempt charges. However, it's crucial to
provide clear evidence supporting your claim of impossibility.
Show Lack of Willfulness: To be held in contempt, there often needs to be an
element of willful disobedience. If you can prove that your failure to comply
was not intentional and you took reasonable steps to fulfill the order, it can
weaken the contempt claim. If an individual contends that their disobedience or
breach was unintentional, arising from a mere accident rather than a willful
act, this defense can serve to absolve them from contempt charges.
Negotiate or Seek Modification: In some cases, it might be possible to negotiate
with the opposing party or seek a modification of the court order if
circumstances have changed. Demonstrating your willingness to work towards a
solution can reflect positively on your defense.
Present Your Case: During any court proceedings related to the contempt charge,
present your evidence, witnesses, and arguments clearly and persuasively. Your
attorney will play a crucial role in building and presenting your defense.
Mitigating Factors: If you acknowledge the violation and can provide compelling
reasons for your actions, such as financial difficulties or health issues, it
might influence the court's perception and potential sanctions.
Comply Immediately: If you're found in contempt and the court orders you to
comply, do so immediately. Demonstrating your willingness to comply can have a
positive impact on the court's assessment of your case.
Each case is unique, and the best defense strategy will depend on the specific
circumstances. Working closely with a qualified attorney is essential to
navigating the legal process effectively and increasing your chances of a
Defenses Against Criminal Contempt of Court
Defending against criminal contempt of court charges involves addressing
allegations that you have willfully and intentionally disrupted court
proceedings or shown disrespect towards the court. Here are steps and strategies
you can consider if you find yourself facing criminal contempt charges:
Consult with an Attorney: Seek legal representation from an experienced attorney
who specializes in criminal defense of contempt cases. They can help you
understand the charges, potential consequences, and develop a strong defense
strategy tailored to your situation.
Understand the Allegations: Familiarize yourself with the specific actions or
statements that led to the contempt charge. Knowing the context and details will
be essential for crafting an effective defense.
Establish Lack of Intent: Criminal contempt often requires proof of intentional
actions meant to obstruct or disrespect the court. If you can demonstrate that
your actions were not deliberate or that they were taken out of context, it can
weaken the prosecution's case.
Freedom of Speech Considerations: If the contempt charges are related to
statements you made, particularly if they involve criticisms of the court, your
defense might invoke the principles of freedom of speech. You may argue that
your statements were protected by the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression
granted by the Constitution of India and did not substantially interfere with
the court's proceedings.
Mistaken Belief or Misunderstanding: If your actions were based on a genuine
misunderstanding of the court's rules or procedures, you could present evidence
to show that you did not intentionally engage in contemptuous behavior.
Contextualize Behavior: Provide context for your actions. If there were
extenuating circumstances or emotional factors that influenced your behavior,
explain how these factors affected your actions in court.
Proportionality of Response: If your actions were in response to perceived
injustices or unfair treatment in court, you could argue that your behavior was
a proportionate response to those circumstances.
Publication in Private Domain: When a publication remains confined to a private
realm, it can serve as a strong defense in cases of criminal contempt. Such
private publications typically do not bear the same risk of undermining the
Inadvertent Publication: If an individual unknowingly publishes information
about a pending case, which subsequently impacts the court's reputation, they
may escape liability for Contempt of Court. Their lack of awareness regarding
the case's ongoing nature could be a valid defense.
Publication with Fairness and Accuracy: When an individual engages in the
publication of judicial proceedings with a commitment to accuracy and fairness,
this stance can exempt them from contempt charges. Accurate reporting that
upholds the integrity of the proceedings is generally not met with legal
Exemption in Personal Defamation: Should an individual choose to personally
defame a judge or court authority; such actions might not amount to contempt of
court. However, it's important to note that this defense may not apply if the
defamation is carried out within the context of undermining the court's
authority or disrupting proceedings.
Apologize and Show Remorse: Demonstrating genuine remorse for any disrespectful
actions and apologizing to the court might influence the court's perception of
your case and potentially lead to a more lenient outcome.
Challenge Evidence: If the prosecution's evidence is weak or can be contested,
your attorney may be able to challenge the validity or relevance of that
Witness Testimony: If there were witnesses to the events leading to the contempt
charge, their testimony could support your version of events and challenge the
Present Your Case: During court proceedings, present your evidence, witnesses,
and arguments clearly and persuasively. Your attorney will guide you through the
process and help you effectively communicate your defense.
Avoid Future Contemptuous Behavior: If the court sees that you are genuinely
committed to respecting its authority and adhering to its rules, it could have a
positive impact on your case.
Navigating criminal contempt charges requires careful legal strategy and
representation. Your attorney will work with you to develop the most appropriate
defense based on the facts of your case and the legal principles involved.
Contempt of court, while essential for maintaining the authority and dignity of
the judicial system, faces various contemporary challenges due to technological
advancements, changing social norms, and the need to balance freedom of
expression. Some of these challenges include:
Social Media and Online Platforms:
The proliferation of social media and online
platforms has made it easier for individuals to express their opinions publicly.
While this facilitates open discourse, it also raises the risk of contemptuous
comments and statements about ongoing cases, judges, or court proceedings being
Content can quickly go viral on the internet, potentially
reaching millions of people within a short span. This amplification can lead to
greater impact in terms of undermining court proceedings or prejudicing public
With the rise of citizen journalism, anyone can become a
source of news or commentary. However, this unregulated form of reporting may
lead to the spread of misinformation and contemptuous content without
traditional editorial oversight.
Fair Trial Concerns:
Contemptuous statements made by the media or individuals
could impact the right of an accused to a fair trial. Biased public opinion or
the premature declaration of guilt can influence the outcome of a case before it
reaches the courtroom.
Satirical and Parody Content:
Satirical and parody content can sometimes blur
the line between legitimate criticism and contemptuous behavior. Courts must
determine whether such content falls under protected forms of expression or
constitutes contemptuous conduct.
The borderless nature of the internet means that
contemptuous content originating from one jurisdiction can have an impact on
legal proceedings in another jurisdiction. This raises questions about the
enforceability of contempt orders and the application of local laws to
Freedom of Expression:
The need to preserve the right to freedom of expression
while curbing contemptuous behavior poses a delicate balance. Courts must
consider whether certain statements are genuine criticism or mere venting of
frustration, and whether they genuinely undermine the administration of justice.
Privacy and Anonymity:
The ability to post content anonymously can encourage
individuals to make derogatory or contemptuous comments without fear of
consequences. Identifying and holding such individuals accountable can be
Unlike traditional media, online content spreads almost
instantly. Courts must act swiftly to address contemptuous content to mitigate
Regulating Online Behavior:
The challenge lies in finding effective ways to
regulate online behavior without stifling free expression. Balancing the need to
prevent contemptuous behavior with protecting fundamental rights is an ongoing
Defining Contemptuous Content:
In an evolving digital landscape, the line
between criticism, valid discourse, and contemptuous content can be blurry.
Courts must establish clear guidelines to distinguish between protected speech
and actions that undermine the judiciary.
To address these challenges, legal systems need to adapt and develop guidelines
that take into account the unique characteristics of digital communication while
upholding the principles of justice and fairness. Balancing the protection of
judicial authority with the preservation of individual rights remains a complex
task in the digital age.
Court Judgments on Contempt of Court
Prior to imposing punishment on an individual for failing to adhere to a court's
directive, the court's satisfaction goes beyond merely confirming the defiance
of a judgment, decree, direction, or writ. The court must also ascertain that
this disobedience was deliberate and purposeful in nature. During the execution
of a decree against the judgment-debtor, the civil court remains uninterested in
whether the non-compliance with a judgment or decree stemmed from a deliberate
intention. Sheo Shankar Mishra v. Indian Oil Corporation Ltd.
, 1995 (2) PLJR
The cessation of contempt proceedings cannot be deemed appropriate merely due to
the demise of the individual bringing forth allegations of contempt against
another. S. Sher Singh v. R. P. Kapur
, AIR 1968 P & H 217 (FB)
However, the Supreme Court has observed that the financial capacity of
government cannot be pleaded as a ground for non-compliance with directions of
the court. Govt. of India v. All India Regional Rural Bank Officers Federation
(2002) 3 SCC 554, 559: 2002 Lab IC 1435: AIR 2002 SC 1398
Where an order of a single bench has been modified by the appellate court,
contempt application in respect to the order of the single judge is not
maintainable as the order of the single bench either ceases to subsist in the
eye of law or is absorbed or merged into the order of the appellate court. The
judgment of the appellate court alone is in operation. Smt. A. Shanthikumari v.
, 2003 (2) ILD 324
The Supreme Court has expressed the view that if the apology tendered appeared
to be sincere and not just to ward off the punishment, the same could be
accepted by the court. Radha Mohan Lal v. Rajasthan High Cour
t, JT 2003 (2) SC
49: AIR 2003 SC 1467: (2003) 3 SCC 427: 2003 Cri LJ 1207
A civil contempt is one where the dispute is entirely between private parties
which does not threaten the proper administration of justice. A criminal
contempt is one where, because of the nature of the conduct in question, the
issues transcend the interest of the parties, and the public has an interest in
ensuring the proper administration of justice.
The determination of whether an
alleged contempt which arose in civil proceedings, such as by disobedience of an
order of the court, is criminal or civil is made by the court during proceedings
.... the form of the proceedings by which the alleged contemner was brought
before the court was irrelevant. Everywoman's Health Centre Society (1988) v.
Bridges, 1993 Can LII 1276 (BC SC)
The power conferred on the High Court by Article 215 of the Constitution of
India to punish contempt of itself necessarily includes all powers incidental
and consequential to that power. It must, therefore, include the power to issue
a proclamation against the person absconding in accordance with the provisions
of section 87 of the Criminal Procedure Code where a contemner, notwithstanding
service of notice, remained absent from the court. Major S. L. Bliasin v. Lt.
Col. Rucy D. Colabawala
, 1974 (76) Bom LR 422
The Supreme Court has also pointed out that when a party is in doubt as to the
meaning and effect of a status quo order the proper course to adopt is to
approach the court to seek clarification. Bharat Coking Coal Ltd. v. State of
, AIR 1988 SC 127: 1988 Cri LJ 396: 1988 (1) SCR 869: 1987 Supp SCC 394:
1987 (4) JT 403: 1987(2) Scale 1015
It has been held that the death of the petitioner during pendency of a petition
is no ground for ignoring the contempt committed by the respondent. Venubai
Savleram Songaonkar v. Gujanan Savleram
, 1992 Cri LJ 1160
In the matter of Arundhati Roy, 2002, the Supreme Court elucidated that
critiques made in the spirit of fair criticism, serving public interest and
driven by genuine good faith, might not be classified as acts of contempt
against the court.
In the case of N. Duda v. V.P. Shiv Shankar & others
, during 1988, the Supreme
Court established that judges possess the authority to employ the jurisdiction
of contempt to uphold their own dignity. This precedent reaffirms the court's
role in maintaining the integrity of the judicial system.
The authority to penalize those found guilty of contempt of court is vested in
the Supreme Court of India by virtue of Article 129 in conjunction with Article
142 of the Constitution of India. Similarly, the power to punish individuals for
contempt lies within the domain of High Courts as stipulated by Article 215 of
the Constitution. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 governs the sanctions imposed
by the High Courts, and it's important to note that this act does not curtail
the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
A pivotal juncture arose in the case of In Re: Vinay Mishra, where a
misinterpretation of Article 129 and Article 142 led to the erosion of the Bar's
authority to adjudicate and penalize instances of professional misconduct. In
this instance, the Court extended its jurisdiction beyond the appellate realm,
despite the Advocates Act, 1961, specifically outlining the Supreme Court's
limited jurisdiction in this regard.
The subsequent case, Supreme Court Bar Association v. Union of India
, saw a
course correction. The Court's ruling emphasized the Bar Council's competence to
oversee and punish those involved in professional misconduct. It is a
well-established principle that contempt proceedings are instituted not to
vindicate the personal stature of a judge or restore their pride following an
act of contempt. Instead, these proceedings exist to safeguard the sanctity of
the law, uphold the esteemed status of the judiciary - a cornerstone of Indian
democracy - in the eyes of the public, and foster their confidence in the
impartial administration of justice.
Written By: Md. Imran Wahab
, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected]
, Ph no: 9836576565