Q. What is the statutory basis for contempt of court in India? How far do you agree that the judicial institutions need protection? (150 Words)05 Apr, 2022 GS Paper 2 Polity & Governance
- Briefly define what is contempt of court and how it came into being
- Define the statutory provisions related to contempt of court
- Discuss how proceedings of the court should be respected but enough safeguards should be ensured for fair criticism
- Conclude by highlighting the need for a balanced criticism for building a robust judiciary
Contempt of court as a concept seeks to protect judicial institutions from motivated attacks and unwarranted criticism, and as a legal mechanism to punish those who lower its authority. The concept of contempt of court is several centuries old and originated In England where it was a common law principle that seeks to protect the judicial power of the king.
When the Constitution was adopted, contempt of court was made one of the restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. Separately, Article 129 of the Constitution conferred on the Supreme Court the power to punish contempt of itself. Article 215 conferred a corresponding power on the High Courts. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, gives statutory backing to the concept of contempt of court.
The law codifying contempt classifies it as civil and criminal. Civil contempt is fairly simple. It is committed when someone willfully disobeys a court order or wilfully breaches an undertaking given to the court. Criminal contempt is more complex. It consists of three forms: (a) words, written or spoken, signs and actions that “scandalise” or “tend to scandalise” or “lower” or “tends to lower” the authority of any court (b) prejudices or interferes with any judicial proceeding and (c) interferes with or obstructs the administration of justice.
The rationale behind the contempt of court
The rationale for this provision is that courts must be protected from tendentious attacks that lower its authority, defame its public image and make the public lose faith in its impartiality. Contempt power is needed to punish wilful disobedience to court orders (civil contempt), as well as interference in the administration of justice and overt threats to judges. The reason why the concept of contempt exists is to insulate the institution from unfair attacks and prevent a sudden fall in the judiciary’s reputation in the public eye.
However, there are certain challenges revolving around contempt of court, such as
- Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution gives the right to freedom of speech and expression to all citizens, while “contempt provisions” curb people’s freedom to speak against the court’s functioning.
- The law is very subjective which might be used by the judiciary arbitrarily to suppress their criticism by the public. For example, the assessment of the ground of scandalizing the court, depends, to a great degree, on the temperament and preference of the judge. What could be contempt to Judge A may not be contempt to Judge B.
In contemporary times, it is more important that courts are seen to be concerned about accountability, that allegations ensue impartial probes rather than threats of contempt action, and processes are transparent. The fear of scandalising the judiciary restrains much of the media and the public from a more rigorous examination of the functioning of the judiciary. It would be prudent to say that it is high time, a balance should be struck in favour of vibrant democracy where constructive criticism is welcomed.
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