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Contempt Of Court: Defenses And Contemporary Challenges

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 courts.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. Attempting to bribe or intimidate judges, jurors, or witnesses.
  3. Arresting a witness while on his way to give evidence.
  4. Assaulting a witness.
  5. Threatening or intimidating a witness e.g., husband intimidating servant against giving evidence of instances of cruelty alleged by the wife.
  6. 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.
  7. Bribing or attempting to bribe a witness.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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".
  11. Tutoring a witness in or outside the court.
  12. 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)

Object of Contempt Jurisdiction
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 represents.

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 be mitigated.

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 unclear nature.

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 documentation.

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 favorable outcome.

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 court's authority.

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 consequences.

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 evidence.

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 prosecution's claims.

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.

Contemporary Challenges
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 disseminated widely.

Viral Content:
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 opinion.

Citizen Journalism:
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.

Cross-Border Impact:
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 international content.

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 challenging.

Immediate Dissemination:
Unlike traditional media, online content spreads almost instantly. Courts must act swiftly to address contemptuous content to mitigate its impact.

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 struggle.

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 875"

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. K. Ravi, 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 Court, 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 Bihar, 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

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