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CRIMINAL CONTEMPT OF COURT

Focus: GS-II Governance

Why in news?

The recent initiation of proceedings for criminal contempt of court, has brought under focus the necessity for retaining the law of contempt as it stands.

Dilemma

  • The origin of the dilemma about what would be more judicious – ignoring adverse remarks or seeking to punish – lies in the part of contempt law that criminalises anything that “scandalises or tends to scandalise” the judiciary or “lowers the court’s authority”.
  • One side of the argument is that 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.
  • Some argue that the law for criminal contempt can be asynchronous with our democratic system which recognises freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right.

A wide field in India

  • The objective for contempt is stated to be to safeguard the interests of the public, if the authority of the Court is denigrated and public confidence in the administration of justice is weakened or eroded.
  • But the definition of criminal contempt in India is extremely wide, and can be easily invoked.
  • An excessively loose use of the test of ‘loss of public confidence’, combined with a liberal exercise of suo motu powers, can be dangerous, for it can amount to the Court signalling that it will not suffer any kind of critical commentary about the institution at all.

In England and abroad

  • The contempt doctrine fell into disuse, and England abolished the offence of “scandalising the court” in 2013.
  • The U.K. Law Commission that recommended abolition of the contempt law said that the law was originally intended to maintain a “blaze of glory” around courts.
  • Contempt has practically become obsolete in foreign democracies, with jurisdictions recognising that it is an archaic law.
  • Canada ties its test for contempt to real, substantial and immediate dangers to the administration.
  • American courts also no longer use the law of contempt in response to comments on judges or legal matters.

Indian Constitution: Regarding Contempt of court

  • Article 129 and 215 of the Constitution of India empowers the Supreme Court and High Court respectively to punish people for their respective contempt.
  • The Contempt of Courts Act of 1971 defines the power of the High Court to punish contempts of its subordinate courts.
  • Power to punish for contempt of court under Articles 129 and 215 is not subject to Article 19(1)(a).

According to Lord Hardwick, there is a three-fold classification of Contempt:

  1. Scandalizing the court itself.
  2. Abusing parties who are concerned in the cause, in the presence of court.
  3. Prejudicing the public before the cause is heard.

However, in India contempt of court is of two types:

  1. Civil Contempt: Under the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971, civil contempt has been defined as 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.
  2. Criminal Contempt: Under the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971, criminal contempt has been defined as the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which:
    • Scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court, or
    • Prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with the due course of any judicial proceeding, or
    • Interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.

-Source: The Hindu

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September 2022
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