By Tanishka Tiwari
Published on: November 13, 2023 at 00:40 IST
Every citizen of our country is bound by the commands of the Hon’ble Courts, and no one, no matter how strong, dares to ignore the Court’s binding and final decrees, or he would face the Court’s wrath. No authority may afford to willfully disregard court orders for fear of being penalised under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.
When a person fails to comply with a court order or an undertaking provided to the court, they may be dealt with for contempt. Non-compliance with court orders endangers the rule of law and undermines public trust in our legal system, which demands respect for the court’s authority.
Non-compliance with orders can be categorised as either civil or criminal contempt, depending on whether the goal is to compel compliance or penalise defiance. As the courts have understood, this difference is ambiguous and complicated. This distinction, according to the Commission, should not be maintained.
Contempt procedures are an important aspect of the legal system because they help to preserve the sanctity and authority of the courts. Noncompliance with court orders is one of the key grounds for contempt actions. This article dives into the notion of contempt of court, the situations that can lead to contempt proceedings, and the sources of power that justify such actions.
According to Merriam-Webster, “contempt” denotes “lack of respect or reverence for something.” Contempt of Court is a legal infraction committed by someone who disrespects/disobeys the Judge or attempts to disrupt the flow of court.
In other terms, it is a wrongful conduct committed by someone that lowers/challenges/diminishes the Court’s superior authority. The act can take the form of failing to follow guidelines, tampering with evidence, defying the Court, disrupting normal Court procedure, and so on.
Advocates, officers in charge, witnesses, or anybody else can commit it. Articles 1291 and 2152 authorise the Supreme Court and the High Court to punish itself for contempt. The Contempt of Court Act, 1971 is law that explicitly addresses concerns concerning contempt.
The notion of contempt of court is not a new occurrence, but has ancient historical origins. Many such laws have existed throughout history. There have been cases where persons have been penalised for actions that were contrary to the administration of justice. This power was often held by Kings or those who presided over the issue.
The modern Indian idea of contempt of court is based on the pre-independence era. The Contempt of Court Act, 1926 was India’s first piece of law dealing particularly with contempt concerns. Section 2 of the Act outlines the High Courts’ authority to penalise contempt of court.3 It states, “The High Court shall have and exercise the same jurisdiction, powers, and authority, in accordance with the same procedure and practise, in respect of contempts of Courts subordinate to it as it has and exercises in respect of contempts of itself: Provided that the High Court shall not take cognizance of a contempt alleged to have been committed in respect of a Court subordinate to it where such contempt is an offence punishable under the Penal Code.”
Later, after independence, the statute was abolished, and new law, the Contempt of Courts statute 1952, was enacted. A measure was submitted in Parliament in 1960 to amend the current statute on contempt. The government decided to re-review the existing legislation, which resulted in the creation of a Committee (Sanyal Committee) to analyse the present law and the proposed drought.
The group delivered its findings in 1963, and extensive debates followed with various academics and interests. The measure was subsequently referred to the Joint Select Committee, which decided to change the section about the time limit for pursuing contempt charges. The bill was ultimately passed into law in 1971, and it abolished the previous one.
Contempt of Court Act 1971, classifies contempt into two different heads i.e. Civil Contempt and Criminal Contempt.
Civil Contempt is defined in Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Court Act 1971.4 According to the Act, “Civil contempt means wilful disobedience to any judgement, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court.”
In comparison to criminal contempt, the level of seriousness is far lower. Mens rea is a crucial factor in Civil Contempt. According to the definition, civil contempt is a violation committed against those who were expected to benefit from the proceedings. Civil Contempt of a Court is defined as willful disobedience of a Court’s order.
In Ashok Paper Kamgar Union and Others v. Dharam Godha,5 the Supreme Court ruled that And Ors defined “wilful” as “an act or omission done voluntarily and intentionally with the specific intent to do something the law forbids or with the specific intent to fail to do something the law requires to be done, that is to say with bad intention either to disobey or disregard the law.” It denotes an intentional activity carried out with wicked intent or with a negative motivation or aim.
The court went on to say that “to constitute contempt, the Court’s order must be of such a nature that it is capable of execution by the person charged in normal circumstances.” It should not need any unusual effort, nor should it be entirely or partially dependent on the act or omission of a third person for compliance.”
There are several civil contempt of court defences available. The most prevalent is a lack of awareness since if the individual is unaware of the directions, he or she cannot be held accountable for failing to comply with those commands. As previously stated, Mens Rea is a key aspect of Section 2(b). If the act was done accidentally, it can also be used as a defence. Similarly, various additional defences were raised, such as the command being ambiguous, the order being difficult to carry out under normal conditions, and so on.
Direct Civil Contempt
The purposeful defiance of a court order or other judicial command that happens in the near presence of the superior court is referred to as direct civil contempt. Without a formal hearing or trial, direct civil contempt fines can be applied.
Indirect Civil Contempt
Indirect Civil Contempt, on the other hand, happens when an individual or corporation fails to comply with a court order or other judicial command when the court is not present. Failure to pay court-ordered child support, failure to comply with a restraining order, or failure to produce needed documents or information are all examples. Indirect civil contempt is often penalised following a formal hearing or trial in which the person accused of contempt is given the opportunity to defend themselves.
Criminal Contempt is defined under Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Court Act 1971.6 It defines “criminal contempt” as “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-
- 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 with or tends to interfere with the administration of justice in any other way.”
To qualify as criminal contempt, four requirements must be met: publication of any matter, undermining or lowering the authority of a court, interfering with normal Judicial processes, and interfering with the administration of justice. Preventing Preceding Officers of the Court, Litigating Parties, Police Officers, or anyone else involved in a Court’s proceedings from attending court constitutes Criminal Contempt since it is an obvious interference in the administration of Justice. The law of contempt is founded on solid public policy by penalising any behaviour that undermines public trust in the administration of justice.
Criminal contempt is considerably more serious than civil contempt. There are extremely rare cases where a simple apology was accepted and the sentence was suspended.
Direct Contempt for Criminal Charges
Direct Criminal Contempt is a criminal offence that relates to disturbing or impeding court proceedings when the judge or other court personnel are present. Interrupting a witness, refusing to observe the judge’s directions, or making threats against court staff are all examples of this. Direct criminal contempt happens in the courtroom and is frequently punished summarily, which means that the judge can inflict punishment without a formal trial or hearing.
Indirect Contempt for Criminal Charges
Indirect Criminal Contempt, on the other hand, happens outside of the courtroom and entails the purposeful disobedience of a court order or other judicial command. Failure to comply with a subpoena, defying a restraining order, or neglecting to pay court-ordered child support are all examples. In most cases, indirect criminal contempt is penalised following a formal hearing or trial in which the person accused of contempt is given the opportunity to defend themselves.
In India, civil contempt refers to willful disobedience of any judgment, decree, order, writ, or other processes of a court, or any willful breach of an undertaking given to a court. The punishment for civil contempt in India is outlined under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. The Act provides the following consequences for civil contempt:
- Imprisonment: A person found guilty of civil contempt may be sentenced to simple imprisonment for a term that may extend to six months. The court may also impose a fine as an additional penalty.
- Fine: In addition to or instead of imprisonment, the court may direct the payment of a fine. The amount of the fine is within the discretion of the court, and it may vary based on the circumstances of the contempt.
- Compensation: The court may order the contemnor to compensate the party affected by the contempt. This compensation is intended to remedy any losses or damages suffered due to the contemptuous act.
- Purging Contempt: Contemnors have the option to purge contempt by complying with the order or undertaking that they previously violated. Purging contempt involves rectifying the non-compliance to the satisfaction of the court.
It’s essential to note that the court has the discretion to determine the appropriate punishment based on the facts and circumstances of each case. The purpose of the punishment is to ensure the authority and dignity of the court, as well as to compel compliance with court orders.
Additionally, contempt proceedings typically involve a show cause notice to the alleged contemnor, providing them with an opportunity to explain their actions before the court decides on the appropriate punishment. Legal representation is crucial for individuals facing contempt proceedings to present a defense and navigate the legal process effectively.
Constitutional provisions also provide higher courts the power of contempt. Articles 129 and 142(b) of the Indian Constitution provide the Apex Court authority over contempt.
Article 129 establishes the ‘Apex Court’ as a ‘Court of Record’ and permits it to punish itself for contempt, whereas Article 142(b) empowers the Supreme Court to punish anybody for contempt, subject to other laws.7
This Court had the ability to penalise for contempt of itself under Article 129 of the Constitution, and it may investigate any such contempt under Article 143(2). It is worth noting that the first draught of Article 129 (Draught Article 108) did not include any clauses concerning contempt. Dr. Ambedkar was the one who pushed for it.
Article 215 grants all Indian High Courts constitutional powers regarding contempt. According to the text, “High Courts will be courts of record. Every High Court should be a court of record, with all the powers of such a court, including the authority to penalise for contempt of itself.”
In T. Sudhakar Prasad vs. Govt. of A.P. & Ors.,8 The Supreme Court stated, “The jurisdiction contemplated by Articles 129 and 215 is inalienable.” It cannot be revoked or reduced by any legislative act subordinate to the Constitution.
Articles 129 and 215 of the Constitution are not in conflict with the provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. The provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, cannot be invoked to limit or regulate the exercise of authority anticipated by the aforementioned two Articles. It is easy to assume that the constitutional rules concerning contempt of court are inherent and cannot be diminished by any legislative act.
Contempt of court and freedom of speech and expression were brought up again last year when Senior Supreme Court Adv. Prashant Bhushan was charged with contempt. Freedom to express one’s beliefs and views is an essential component of any democratic society.
Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution states that “all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression.”9 It is crucial to stress, however, that this right is not absolute. Article 19(2) of the constitution provides for some acceptable limits.10
Contempt proceedings are an important instrument for protecting the judiciary’s authority and ensuring the smooth administration of justice. Noncompliance with court orders not only impedes the resolution of legal problems, but it also undermines public trust in the judicial system. As such, the ability to start contempt proceedings is a crucial instrument used by courts to safeguard their integrity and efficacy.
Understanding the sources of authority for contempt proceedings, the penalties of noncompliance, and the legal principles established by historic judgements is critical for grasping the role of contempt in upholding the rule of law and preserving the court system’s credibility.
- Civil contempt proceedings—non-compliance with a court order or undertaking
- 8. Disobedience contempt: non-compliance with court orders and undertakings
- Examining the Concept of Contempt of Court
- Necessary to comply with orders of court even without jurisdiction, non-compliance might lead to contempt proceedings: The High Court of Delhi
- Contempt of Court: Understanding the Punishments for Criminal and Civil Contempt
1. Constitution of India, 1949, Art.129
2. Constitution of India, 1949, Art.215
3. Contempt of Courts Act, 1926, s.2
4. Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, s.2(b)
6. Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, s.2(c)
7. Constitution of India, 1949, Art.142(b)
9. Constitution of India, 1949, Art.19(1)(a)
10. Constitution of India, 1949, Art.19(2)