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The Contempt Of Court Act, 1971: Introduction & Limitations


The Legal System is the part of a country’s government which administers justice in accordance with the law. It apply the law, settle disputes, punish law-breakers, protects rights of individuals and fills loop holes in the law. The Legal system that we see today is the result of 1000 years legal evolution from divine law of the nature to the positive law that we see today. Since the beginning of human civilization judiciary, in some form, kept protecting the both person and property of the individuals; but then who will protect the Judiciary itself. 

There the concept of ‘Contempt of Court’ has evolved, which seeks to protect the judicial institution and its members from motivated attacks and unwarranted criticism by punishing those who intends to lowers its authority. In the case of Attorney-General v. Times Newspapers Ltd., Lord Diplock[1] defined the term ‘Contempt of Court’ as a generic term descriptive of conduct in relation to particular proceeding in a court of law which tends or intents to tend to undermine that system or to inhibit citizens from availing themselves of it for the settlement of their disputes. Thus in simple terms the Contempt of Court can be defined as an offence of being disobedient to or disrespectful toward a court of law and its officers in the form of behaviour which oppose or defies the authority, justice and dignity of the court. In India Contempt of Court is defined under Section 2(a) of Contempt of Court Act, 1971 as, “Contempt of Court means civil contempt or criminal contempt”.

Origin of the concept

The concept of Contempt of court is as old as the Legal system. The origin of the concept can be seen in the medieval times when the monarchs transfer their royal power to court and at this time monarchs were believed to be the appointee of God and everyone is accountable to him. Thus at that time if someone disregards the authority of court, it meant to be the disregard of king which ultimately means the disregard of god itself and thus the person committing such disregard is punished for his act. In England it is principle of common law which seeks to protect the dignity of the king as a Judge and later to protect the dignity of the panel of judges who acted in the name of King. In India similar to other laws the law of contempt of court have also been borrowed from the Britain but it has not been absolutely taken from English laws rather it has other origins too. Reference to this concept can be seen in Arthashastra of Kautilya, he says that any person who insults or lowers the dignity of the King and his council or attempts to do so then the tongue of that person should be cut off.
With the adoption of Constitution of India, Supreme Court in India possessed the same power by the virtue of Article 129 and Article 142(2) of the Indian Constitution. However until the year 1952, there was no specific law for the Contempt of court in India, but then with the enactment of Contempt of Court Act, 1952 India has the established law for the purposes. To bring certain changes and to make the law of contempt more strong Shri B B Das Gupta introduced a bill in the Lok Sabha, after which the then government discerned the need for reforms in the existing law. So a special committee under the Chairmanship of H.N. Sanyal was established. The Sanyal Committee report brought the reforms in the act and provided what we today see as Contempt of Court Act, 1971.

Contempt of Court Act, 1971: Introduction

The law relating to Contempt of Court in India is now governed by the Contempt of Court Act, 1971. Earlier this act extends to whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir, but after the removal of Article 370 of Indian Constitution this act becomes applicable to Jammu and Kashmir also. Section 2(a) of the act define Contempt of Court as, “Contempt of Court means civil contempt or criminal contempt”. Thus it is evident from this section that in India there are two types of Contempt of court:

1. Civil Contempt: Civil Contempt can be defined as the wilful disobedience to any judgment, order, decree, direction, writ or any other process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court.[2] In simple terms where action of contemner is wilful, deliberate and in clear disregard of Court’s order, it amounts to civil contempt.[3]

2. Criminal Contempt: Criminal Contempt can be defined as made publication of any matter either by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise or the doing of any other act whatsoever which,
(i) scandalizes or tends to scandalize, 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.”

Essentials of Contempt of court

An act to be treated as Contempt of court must fulfill certain essentials, which are as follow:
1. The court should make a valid order.
2. The order passed should be in the knowledge of the respondent and that he was able to perform the order.
3. In case of civil contempt there should be the willful disobedience of the order.
4. In case of criminal content there should be the publication of the matter which scandalizes, creates a prejudice or interferes with the administration of justice.

Limitations of the act

The Contempt of Court Act which seeks to protect the dignity of court and to prevent any restriction in the administration of justice, is also subject to certain limitations provided by the act which are as follows:
1. A person cannot held guilty for the contempt of court for publishing any matter which interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the course of justice in connection with any civil or criminal proceeding pending at that time of publication, if at that time there existed no reasonable grounds for him to believe that the proceeding was pending. Also he cannot be held liable on the ground of distribution of any matter if he had no reasonable grounds for believing that it contained or was likely to contain any such matter as aforesaid.
2. A person cannot be held guilty of contempt of court for publishing a fair and accurate report of a judicial proceeding or any stage thereof.
3. A person cannot be held guilty for publishing any fair comment on the merits of any case which has been heard and finally decided.
4. A person cannot be held guilty of contempt of court for any statement made by him in good faith concerning the presiding officer of any subordinate court to,
a. any other subordinate court, or
b. High Court to which that court is subordinate.
5. A person cannot be held guilty of contempt of court for publishing a fair and accurate report of a judicial proceeding before any court sitting in chambers or in camera except in the following cases where:
a. the publication is contrary to any law, or
b. the court prohibits any such publication on the ground of public policy or in the exercise of any power vested, or
c. publication is of information relating to the proceeding of a case relating to public order or security of the state.
6. The act also restricts the courts from enlargement of the scope of the word ‘contempt’.
7. A person cannot be held guilty of contempt of court for an act if it does not interferes or tend to interfere with the due course of justice.
8. No proceedings of contempt of court can be initiated against any person after the expiry of a period of one year from the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed.
9. This act is not applicable in relation to contempt of Nyaya Panchayats or any other village courts, by whatever name known, for the administration of justice, established under any law.

[1] [1973] 3 W.L.R. 298
[2] Section 2(b) of Contempt of Court Act,1971
[3] Amar Bahadurising v. P.D. Wasnik and others. 1994 Cri.L.J 1359 

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This blog is authored by Harsh Srivastava student at Shri Ramswaroop Memorial University

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