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Contempt of Courts Act, 1971

It is a fact that an independent and impartial judiciary is the sine qua non of a healthy society. Therefore, it becomes quite essential that the judiciary is protected from all sorts of evils to affect the administration of justice.

The quest for conferring society's support and respect to the judiciary led to the conferment of ancillary powers in the judiciary to prevent any act which may lead to disrespect towards the authority of the court and eventually this power developed into law of contempt.

The law of contempt is based on sound public confidence in the administration of justice. The purpose of contempt jurisdiction is to uphold the majesty and dignity of law courts.
The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 defines contempt of court and also provides for the procedure, limitation, punishment, and appeals as well as defenses available to contemnor.

Meaning of Contempt of Court:

Contempt of court generally is any behavior or wrongdoing that conflicts with or challenges the authority, integrity, and superiority of the court. It may include failure to comply with requests, witness tampering, withdrawing evidence or defying court orders.

Meaning of Oswald:

Contempt of court may be said to be constituted by any conduct that tends to bring the authority and administration of law into disrespect or disregard or to interfere with or prejudice parties litigation or their witness during litigation.

Definition: The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971
Section 2(b) provides 'civil contempt' means willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ, or other processes of the court or willful breach of an undertaking given to the court.

Section 2 (c) provides 'criminal court' means publication of any matter or doing of any act which:

Scandalous Or Lowers The Authority Of The Court.
Prejudice Or Interfere With The Due Course Of Any Judicial Proceedings.
Interfere Or Obstructs The Administration Of Justice.

Defences Available in Contempt Proceedings:

The Law of Contempt is quasi-criminal and it results in penal consequences. Therefore, it becomes a matter of necessity that a person against whom proceedings for contempt have been initiated must be armed with certain defences.

The defences available to a contemnor have been engrafted in section 3 to section 8 and section 13 of Contempt of Court's Act, 1971. The defences are divided into civil and criminal defence.

Defences In Criminal Contempt

  1. Innocent publication and distribution of matter.
    Section 3 enumerates defences available to contemnor about some publication or distribution of such publications.

    No reasonable ground for believing that proceedings were pending:
    If a contempt proceeding is initiated against a person on the ground that he is responsible for publication which prejudice or interferes or tends to interfere with the proceedings which is pending, he may plead that he at the time of publication has no reasonable grounds for believing that the proceeding was pending.

    It creates an exception to the strict liability rule in case of publication which interferes or tends to interfere with or obstruct or tends to obstruct the course of justice in pending proceedings by enabling the person charged to prove that he had no reason to believe that any proceedings referable to the publication were pending.

    Proceeding not pending at the time of publication:
    Publication of any matter which interferes or tends to interfere with or obstructs or tends to obstruct with the course of justice in connection with any civil or criminal proceedings will not make the person responsible for such publication, liable for contempt of court if he proves that proceedings about which such publication has been made were not pending at the time of publication.

    Prabhakar Laxman Mokashi v. Sadanand Tribak 1975 CrLJ 531 (Bom):
    In this case, it was stated that this immunity is absolute. The court laid down that publication of matter which might otherwise fall within clutches of the definition of contempt is granted an exemption if proceedings were not pending at the time of publication.

    Innocent distribution of Publication:
    Section 3 provides that a person shall not be guilty of contempt on the ground that he has distributes a publication on ground that containing any matter which interferes or tends to interfere with or obstruct the course of justice in connection with any civil or criminal proceedings pending at the time of distribution if at the time of distribution he had no reasonable ground for believing that it contained any such matter. Though not applicable in case of the foreign publication since they will be ignorant of the content and under no duty to be acquainted with them.
  2. Fair and Accurate report of judicial proceedings.
    Section 4 provides that a person shall not be guilty of contempt of court for publishing a fair and accurate report of judicial proceedings or any stage thereof. It is a general rule that the administration of justice should be open and public. This principle is based on public interest considerations. Consequently, must give way when public interest indicates the degree of privacy.

    E.T. Sen v. Narayanan and Others, 1969 CrJL 884 Delhi- In this case it has been held that while reproducing the court proceedings, no words may be added, omitted or substituted if their effect is to be more prejudicial to a party litigant than the actual proceedings. Any deviation in the report from the correct proceedings renders the alleged contemnor liable.

    Publication of proceedings held in chambers or camera: (Section 7)
    The right to publish fair and accurate reports of judicial proceedings is limited to generally those judicial proceedings which are conducted in open court. However, this right doesn't extend to the proceedings held in Chambers or camera. But there are certain exceptions according to Section 7(1):
    1. Where publication is contrary to provisions of any enactment for time being in force.
    2. Where the court, on the ground of public policy, or in the exercise of any power vested in it, prohibits the publication of all information relating to proceedings or of information of description which is published.
    3. Where the court sits in Chambers or camera for reasons connected with public order or security of the state, publication of information relating to those proceedings.
    4. Where information, relates to secret process discovery of invention which is an issue in proceedings.
  3. Fair Criticism of Judicial Act.
    Section 5 describes that fair criticism of judicial action is not contempt. This section provides that a person shall not be guilty of contempt of court for publishing any fair comment on the merits of any case which has been heard and finally decided.

    Conditions of fair comment:
    • It must be based on facts truly stated. No comment is fair if it is based on a mistake of fact.
    • Must not contain imputation of corrupt motives on the person whose conduct is criticized.
    • It must be an honest expression of the writer's real opinion.

    Ambard v. Attorney general for Trinidad and Tabago (1936) 38 BOMLR 681:
    It was observed that no wrong is committed by any member of the public who exercises ordinarily right of criticizing in good faith in private or public, the act is done in the seal of justice. Members of the public who abstain from imputing motives to those taking part in the administration of justice and are generally exercising the right of criticism, not acting malice are immune.
  4. Bonafide complaint against presiding officers of the subordinate court
    Bonafide complaint against the presiding officer of the subordinate court can be made under Section 6. It provides that a person shall not be guilty made by him in good faith concerning a presiding officer of any subordinate court to any other subordinate court or High court to which it is subordinate
  5. No substantial interference with due course of justice and truth as a defence
    Section 13 in contempt of court action has been added, it provides that notwithstanding anything contained in law for time being in force no court shall impose a sentence under the act for contempt unless satisfied that the contempt is of nature that it interferes with due course of injustice and court may permit any jurisdiction by truth as valid defences.
  6. Defamation of judge personally
    If the publication or other act is merely a defamatory attack on the judge and is not calculated to interfere with the due administration of justice, it won't be contempt. The judge has ordinary remedies for defamation, but it can't be punished as contempt.

Defenses In Civil Contempt

  1. Disobedience or breach of the undertaking was not wilful.
    In civil contempt the following preconditions are necessary:
    • There must be judgment, order, decree, direction, writ or an undertaking given to the court.
    • There must be disobedience to such judgment etc on breach of undertaking.
    • Disobedience must be wilful.
    If the contemnor proves that there was no willful disobedience or the breach, he may be absolved from liability of civil contempt. The court is free to presume the intention of the person through his act. It is upon the court to decide whether there was a breach of any undertaking given to the court, which was willful or not.
  2. The order has been passed without jurisdiction.
    If the order disobeyed is proved to have been passed by a court without jurisdiction or if there has been any kind of violation, been proved but under no jurisdiction, the same would amount to contempt. The order passed without jurisdiction is void and void orders binds nobody. The burden to prove that the court which has passed the order had no jurisdiction to pass, lies on the person who alleges it.
  3. Order disobeyed is vague and ambiguous.
    It would be a defence in contempt proceedings that the order is vague and ambiguous. An order is considered vague if it was not specific and complete. For initiating contempt proceedings for disobeying, the order is required to be specific and complete because a contempt petition based on the implication of the order is not likely to succeed.

    A person may take the plea that the terms of the order are ambiguous. Court had made it clear that if the direction in order of court depends on certain other facts and such facts are left undefined by the order, the order will be taken as ambiguous and its violation will not amount to contempt of court.
  4. Order involves more than one reasonable interpretation.
    If the court's order involves more than one reasonable and rational interpretation and the respondent adopts one of them and acts by such interpretation, he can't be liable for contempt.
  5. Compliance with the order is impossible.
    If the contemnor can prove that the order for compliance is impossible to comply with due to many reasons, he will not be liable for contempt of court. It can be stated that order is not practically possible to be executed due to parity of time or circumstances beyond the control.
  6. No knowledge of the order.
    A person can't be held guilty of contempt in infringing an order of a court of which he knows nothing or where an order of status quo is passed by the court but the party continues the work before receiving the order and also he has no actual knowledge of order, he will not be liable. Similarly, if the court passes an order, requiring a party to do a specific action within the time specified but the order is served to the party after the expiry of the time so specified, noncompliance with the order will not amount to contempt. If a person concerned deliberately evades service of the order, he can't escape liability on the ground that the order was not formally served on him.
  7. Alternative Remedy available.
    Since contempt jurisdiction is an extraordinary one, it should not be used whenever an alternative remedy is available.

Procedure Applicable to Contempt Proceedings:

Section 14 of the contempt of court act deal with the procedure of contempt in the face of the court of record whereas, Section 15 deal with the procedure in cases other than in the face of the court of record.

Article 129 provides Supreme Court and Article 215 provides every High Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such court including to punish for its contempt.

These courts have inherent powers to punish for contempt and therefore these courts of records can deal with such matters summarily and can adapt their procedure.

The only cases to be observed by the court while exercising the contempt jurisdiction is that procedure adopted must be fair and reasonable in which full opportunity should be given to the contemnor to defend himself. And no person should be punished for contempt unless a specific charge against him is distinctly stated and he is given a reasonable opportunity to answer it and to defend himself against such charge.

To contempt proceedings are neither civil proceedings nor criminal. They are sin genres. Contempt proceedings will neither be governed by civil procedure nor criminal procedure even the provisions of evidence act is not attracted.

The Contempt of court and the power of the Supreme court and High Court to initiate proceedings for contempt and pass punishment orders is a special jurisdiction that is inherent in all courts of record. Section 5 of the Code of Criminal Procedure expressly excluded special jurisdiction from the scope of the said code.

Re: Vinay Chandra Mishra AIR 1995 SC 2348:
The Supreme Court has observed that threat of immediate punishment is the most effective deterrent against misconduct.

Cognizance and Procedure in case of contempt in face of court:

The issues relating to cognizance and procedure in such type of contempt may be discussed under the following headings:
  1. Contempt in the face of the Supreme Court and High Court.
    Section 14 of the Contempt court Act,1971 deals with the contempt in the face of Supreme Court and High Court that a person appears to have committed contempt in the presence or hearing, the court may cause such person to be detained in custody and shall at any time before the rising of court on the same day as early as possible, Thereafter:
    1. Cause him to be informed in writing of the contempt with which he is charged.
    2. Allow him to make his defence in respect of the charge.
    3. After taking such evidence as may be offered by such person and after hearing him precede either forthwith or after adjournment to determine the matter of the charge.
    4. Make such order for the punishment or discharge of such person as may necessary.
    Where the person charged with contempt under this section applies whether orally writing to have charged against him, tried by some judges other than the judge or judges in whose presence or hearing the contempt is alleged to have been committed and the court is of the opinion that it is necessary for the interest of justice that the application should be allowed, it shall cause the matter to be placed before Chief Justice with a statement of facts.

    However, it shall not be necessary for the judge or judges in whose hearing the contempt is alleged to have been committed to appear as a witness. The statement of facts written by the judge while referring the matter to the Chief Justice shall be treated as evidence in the case.

    In cases, where the contemnor has been detained in custody, during the pendency of the contempt case, he may be released on bail on furnishing bonds with or without sureties that he shall continue to attend the court proceedings.
  2. Contempt in the face of subordinate courts
    In this case, the subordinate court can take immediate action under Section 228 of IPC read with Section 345 and Section 346 of Code of Criminal Procedure.

    Section 345 of Code of Criminal Procedure lays down the procedure of investigation and punishment for offences specified under Section 175, Section 178, Section 179, Section 180 and Section 228 of Indian Penal Code committed in the view or presence of any civil, criminal or revenue court.

    The court may cause the offender to be detained in custody and may at any time before the rising of the court on the same day take cognizance and give the offender a reasonable opportunity that is why he should not be punished under this section.

    Punishment is fine not exceeding rupees 200 and in default of payment imprisonment which may extend to one month unless such fine is sooner paid. The procedure laid down for punishing offenders for the offences specified in the aforesaid section of IPC is the summary procedure.

Procedure of Criminal Contempt outside the court:

Criminal contempt committed outside the court, in other words, other than in the face of court is known as Constructive contempt.

Section 15(1) deals with cognizance of criminal contempt by courts of record. It provides that cognizance for criminal contempt can be taken by the Supreme Court and High court in the following manner:
  • On its motion.
  • On the motion of the Advocate- General
  • On the motion of any other person, with the consent, in writing of the Advocate General.
  • On the motion of such law officer about the High Court for the Union Territory of Delhi as the Central Government may notify.

Section 15(2) deals with criminal contempt of subordinate courts. It provides that in the case of criminal contempt of a subordinate court, the concerned High court may take actions in the following manner:
  • On the reference made to it by the Subordinate Court
  • On the motion made by the Advocate General
  • On the motion made by such law officer about a Union Territory as the Central Government may specify.
Section 15 (3) provides that every motion or reference shall specify the contempt of which the person charged is alleged to be guilty.

Bar on Private Person:
Section 15 bars the private individual to file without consent of the Advocate General. The purpose of barring a private Person from filing contempt procedure without the consent of the Attorney General is to save the court's time from being wasted in frivolous complaints.

In the cases of contempt committed outside the court, the contemnor isn't present in the court and therefore notice is to be served on him. Section 17 deals with this procedure. It provides that notice of every proceeding under section 15 shall be served personally on the person charged unless the court for reasons to be recorded, directs otherwise.

Period of Limitation for initiation of Contempt Proceedings:
The limitation period for the action of contempt is a period of one year from the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed, mentioned under section 20 of the act.

Punishment, Apology and Appeal
  • Punishment under the Contempt of Courts act:
    Section 12 of the act deals with the punishment for contempt of court. The high court and Supreme Court have been given the power to punish someone for contempt of court.
    Section 12(1) of this act states that a person who alleged the contempt of court can be punished with simple imprisonment, which can extend up to 6 months or with a fine which may extend to 2000 rupees or can be both.

    However, an accused may be discharged or the punishment that was awarded to him maybe remitted on the condition if he makes an apology. It is entirely the discretion of the court to accept such an apology.

    Vishram Singh Raghubanshi v. State of Uttar Pradesh 2006 CriLJ 3329- The court held that the contemnor was not even sure that he committed contempt or not and he gave his apology after he realised that he would be punished. So, the court considered such an apology was not sincere and hence he was held liable for imprisonment.
  • Remedies against the order of punishment:
    following remedies are available against the punishment order under The Contempt of Court's Act.
    1. Apology:
      The contemnor may under apology to the court and the court may remit the punishment awarded for contempt if the court is satisfied that the apology has been with a real sense of repentance.

      MC Mehta v Union of India:
      The hon'ble Supreme Court clarified that apology should not be used as a weapon of defence in case of contempt. The apology must be tendered at the earliest opportunity. An apology will not be treated as an apology if tendered at the time when the court is going to punish the contemnor.

      Explanation to Section 12(1) has enabled the contemnor to put forward his defence while pleading apology. An apology should not be rejected on the ground that it is qualified or conditional if the accused makes it bonafide.
    2. Appeal:
      Contempt of Courts Act,1971 has provided for the statutory right of an appeal against the orders of the High Court passed in the exercise of its jurisdiction to punish for the contempt of court.

      Before this act, there was no statutory right of appeal but even at that time, the person punished under this act was not remediless. The High Court itself could grant the certificate under Article 134 of the Indian Constitution and where the High Court refused to grant such certificate, the Supreme Court could entertain the appeal by granting special leave under Article 136 of the Constitution of India. So, the right to appeal before 1971 was dependent on the discretion of the court.

In this act, Section 19 (1) provides the right of only one appeal. It provides that an appeal shall lie as if right from any order or decision of the High Court in the exercise of jurisdiction to punish for contempt. If the order of punishment has been passed by a single judge in High Court, there is a right of appeal to the division bench of not less than 2 judges of the High Court. If the order of punishment is passed by a division of bench then the appeal will lie in the Supreme Court.

Section 19(4) provides for the period of limitation for preferring an appeal. It provides that an appeal under Section 19(1) shall be filed within 30 days to the division bench of the High Court and in 60 days in case appeal lies in the Supreme Court from the date of the order appealed against.

Section 19(2) deals with the powers of the appellate court. It provides that during the pendency of the appeal the appellate court may pass the following orders
  1. The execution of the punishment order shall remain suspended
  2. If the appellate is under confinement, he must be released on bail.
  3. The appeal may be heard notwithstanding that the appellant has not perched his contempt.
Section 19(3) provided that an appeal will lie at the instance of the person aggrieved. A person who moves the application for initiating contempt proceedings doesn't come within the category of a person aggrieved and therefore has no locus to file an appeal if his contention for initiating the contempt proceedings is rejected.

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