Contempt of court laws are intended to preserve the dignity and authority of our Judiciary. While these rules serve an important purpose in ensuring impartial and fair trials, they have the potential to conflict with freedom of speech and expression. To comprehend the intersection of these two important variables, we must first examine the underlying concept behind the creation of contempt of court legislation.
Contempt of Court is defined as being disrespectful or disobedient towards a court of law, i.e. that one wilfully disobeys the court order or insults the legal authority. “A person guilty of contempt of court may be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to two thousand rupees, or with both. The accused may be discharged or the punishment awarded may be remitted on apology being made to the satisfaction of the Court.”
The definition given above clearly highlights the concept of subjectivity with respect to the act of default i.e. disobedience and disrespect. Both these terms have a very wide connotation. In simpler terms what may be very offensive to person A, may not bother person B even a bit. Subjectivity is a basic human tendency. The above-mentioned criteria can neither be absolutely defined nor can be quantified. Therefore applying these as parameters to determine contempt of court is a big question in itself.
Application of such parameters on a large scale through legislation, which has a drastic effect on the lives of people always leaves a chance of error and a scope of grey area, increasing the scope of discrimination under the umbrella of law.
Section 2(a) of the Contempt of Court Act defines “Contempt of Court” under 2 different heads i.e. Civil Contempt and Criminal Contempt.
Civil Contempt of Court
According to Section 2 (b) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, “civil contempt means 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”.
When an order is passed for the benefit of one party and another fails to comply with the order of the court then in this case contempt may be made liable to the latter. For instance, If an order is passed to compensate a policyholder and the policy manager fails to compensate the same then he shall be liable for contempt of court.
In other words, civil contempt is defined as wilful disobedience to a Court’s order, decree, directive, judgment, or wilful breach of undertakings provided to a Court. Furthermore, since Civil Contempt deprives a party of the benefit for which the decree was granted, these are essential private offences. In other words, this wrong is often done to a person who is entitled to the benefit of the orders of the court.
Criminal Contempt of Court
According to Section 2 (c) of the Act, “criminal contempt means the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which—
(i) scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or
(ii) prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or
(iii) interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.”
According to the definitions of the act, while Civil Contempt is fundamentally preventing any default to justice and so protecting the honour of the court, Criminal Contempt, on the other hand, is the element that functions as a threat to Freedom of Speech and Expression. Here’s how the Criminal Contempt of Court Act, of 1971 can occasionally stifle free speech and expression:
i) Restriction of Criticism: Contempt of court laws can be used to restrict or punish individuals who criticize judges, court decisions, or the judicial process. While constructive criticism is essential for accountability and improvement, these laws may deter people from expressing their opinions openly for fear of facing contempt charges.
ii) Chilling Effect: The mere existence of contempt of court laws and the possibility of severe penalties can create a chilling effect on free speech. Individuals may self-censor their opinions or refrain from discussing matters related to ongoing court cases to avoid any potential contempt charges. This can limit the open exchange of ideas and information.
iii) Unclear Boundaries: Contempt of court laws often lack precise definitions and may leave room for interpretation. This ambiguity can lead to inconsistent application, creating a sense of uncertainty and inhibiting free expression. People may be unsure of what exactly constitutes contempt, which can deter them from engaging in public discourse on legal matters.
iv) Media restrictions: Journalists and media organizations are particularly vulnerable to contempt of court laws. Reporting on ongoing trials or discussing sensitive details can expose them to the risk of being held in contempt. This can lead to self-censorship by the media, limiting their ability to inform the public about legal proceedings and potentially impeding the public’s right to know.
v) Disproportionate Punishments: Contempt of court laws may carry severe penalties, including fines, imprisonment, or even closure of media outlets. The potential for harsh punishments can have a chilling effect on free speech, dissuading individuals from expressing their opinions or criticizing the judiciary.
The Supreme Court observed in P.N. Duda v. V. P. Shiv Shankar & Ors. that judges cannot utilise contempt jurisdiction to uphold their own dignity. Our democracy is a free marketplace of ideas, and no one should be barred from criticising the court system until it interferes with the ‘administration of justice.
Considering opposition to be one of the key elements of any Democracy every authority under it is by default open to criticism from the public at large. For the very reason that it is their interests that are being governed and protected by these authorities. Therefore a limitation or bar on such criticism may directly affect the Freedom of Speech and Expression along with hampering the spirit of democracy.
Contempt of court is a legal concept designed to protect the integrity of the judicial process and ensure that courts can function effectively. While it is crucial to maintain the sanctity of the court proceedings, there have been instances where the power of contempt of court has been misused or applied in a manner that raises concerns about freedom of expression and fair criticism. Here’s an example from India:
Prashant Bhushan Case:
A human rights activist Prashant Bhushan, who is known for his public interest litigation and outspoken nature, was held guilty of contempt of court by the Supreme Court of India. Bhushan had criticized the judiciary in a tweet and an interview. He made such remarks to highlight what he perceived as issues with the judicial system. The Supreme Court took suo motu cognizance of his statements and initiated contempt proceedings against him. In August 2020, the Supreme Court held Bhushan guilty of contempt, stating that his comments undermined the public’s confidence in the judiciary. He was fined one rupee as a nominal punishment. The conviction sparked a significant debate about the limits of free speech and the appropriate application of contempt of court. Many individuals and organizations criticized the judgment, arguing that it stifled legitimate criticism of the judiciary and set a dangerous precedent by penalizing dissenting voices.
Several legal experts and activists expressed concerns that the contempt proceedings against Prashant Bhushan were disproportionate and infringed upon his right to freedom of expression. They argued that criticism of the judiciary, as long as it is made in good faith and in the public interest, should not automatically amount to contempt.
Kamini Jaiswal case:
In 2017, advocate Kamini Jaiswal filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking an independent investigation into an alleged bribery case involving judges. The court treated her petition as contemptuous and argued that it undermined the dignity and authority of the judiciary. Jaiswal’s intention was to seek transparency and accountability, but she was faced with contempt charges, which some critics viewed as an attempt to silence her and discourage open discussions about judicial integrity.
These cases emphasise the importance of a thorough and nuanced interpretation of contempt of court laws in order to ensure that they are not used to repress genuine criticism and dissent while still safeguarding the judiciary’s dignity and authority. It also emphasised the need to strike a balance between the right to free speech and expression and the requirement to maintain public trust in the judicial system.
As the preceding analysis shows, there is a major tension between free expression and the administration of justice due to the substantial public interest in preserving and defending both ideals.
Contempt of court is a necessary aspect of the Judiciary. Furthermore, the underlying concept of a democracy is that the people are supreme, and all judicial agencies have a duty to serve them and administer justice. Certainly, the Supreme has the right to criticise if he or she fails to act or fulfil the needs of the public. The objective of a contempt action in a democratic democracy can only be to ensure the proper functioning of the court. The power does not exclude the master, the people, from criticising judges and other authorities who fail to function properly or commit misconduct. In other words, the public should be free to criticise the courts and the authorities. The basic right to free expression cannot be abridged within the scope of reasonable restriction or protection of the judiciary.
While it is critical to achieve a balance between free expression and the requirement for a fair judicial system, there is a potential risk that contempt of court legislation will infringe on free expression. To avoid disproportionate restrictions on free speech and expression, such regulations must be unambiguous, precisely limited, and enforced judiciously.
Among other things, the aforementioned cases have raised concerns regarding the applicability of the Contempt of Court Act in India and the potential for it to be used to repress dissent or valid criticism. Critics say that a more balanced approach is required to ensure free expression while safeguarding the integrity of the judiciary.
This article is written and submitted by Soudamini Sharma during her course of internship at B&B Associates LLP. Soudamini is a BBA LLB 4th year student at Himachal Pradesh National Law University, Shimla.