What is the Limitation Period for Contempt of Court case?

Limitation time law law insider

By Avinash Singh

Published on: February 19, 2024 at 18:47 IST

Contempt means, a strong feeling of disliking and having no respect for someone or something. Contempt of Court is an act of disrespect or disobedience of court or interfere in the process of Court’s orderly proceeding. Contempt of Court is not defined anywhere, but section 2 of Contempt of Court Act, 1971 defines it as Criminal Contempt and Civil Contempt. This term can be easily understand as the when a person wilfully disobey the Court’s order or disrespect the judicial authority, then judges has the right to impose the sanctions such as fines or can send to jail for certain period of time if person found guilty of Contempt of Court.

If we see history of Contempt of Court, there are two important case laws pertaining this in 16th century which was happened in England. First case was Chief Justice Richardson case, 1631, in this case a person criticized Chief Justice Richardson in the Court during delivering a judgement and he also thrown a stone against the Richardson, but he escaped. The court got very angry, and charged that person with criminal offence. The Court given him punishment to cut-off his hand which was used for throwing the stone, and he was hanged immediately in the presence of Court.

The second case is James Williamson case, 1634, in this case the offender James Williamson had thrown a stone on the group of judges to show his grievances, immediately the judges given order to cut-off his hand, and fixed that hand in front of entrance of Court, and that hand was fixed for many years as reminder for punishment for disrespecting the Court and king.

The footprints of Contempt of Courts can be seen in the Kautilya’s book of Arthashastra. He has written that, any person who exposes the king or insults his council or made any type of bad attempts on the kings then the tongue of that person should be cut off. He also said that, when a judge threatens, bully or make silence to any of the disputants in court then he should be punished.

In India in 1961 a committee was established under the chairmanship of H.N Sanyal to inspect the existing law of Contempt of Court. This committee submitted his report on 28th February, 1963. Finally Contempt of Court Act, 1971 was enacted on the basis of recommendation of that committee.

Section 2 of this Act defines it in two ways;

  • Civil contempt: A wilful disobedience to any judgement, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of Court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to Court is civil contempt.
  • Criminal contempt: The publication whether by words, spoken or written, or by sign, or by visible representation of any matter which scandalises or lowers the authority of any Court, or interferes with the due course of judicial proceeding, or interfere or obstruct the administration of justice in any other manner is criminal contempt.
  • If any person innocently publish and distribute something which interfere with the pending proceeding, or he have no reason to believe that the proceeding was pending before the Courts of law.
  • A person should not be held guilty of Contempt of Court for publishing a fair and accurate report of judicial proceeding. He shall not be guilty for publishing the fair and accurate summery of the whole or any part of order made by court in camera unless the Court has expressly prohibited the publication on grounds of public order, security of state, public policy.
  • A person shall not be guilty if he makes a statement towards the presiding officer of subordinate Court in good faith.
  • A person shall not be guilty if he is publishing any fair comment on merits of any case which has been finally decided. This defence also protect the fundamental right of citizens which is given in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. In the case of Sheela Barse Vs Union of India the supreme court said that, it is privileged right of citizens to speak out of his mind and criticize the judiciary.
  • Truth is valid defence only if it bonafide and in public interest.
  • A person shall not be guilty if he disobeyed the order of court who have no jurisdiction to decide particular matter. The burden of proof that court have no jurisdiction is upon that person who disobeyed the order.
  • It would be a defence is the order given by Court is vague and ambiguous. If the order is not clear or complete then Court shall not initiate contempt proceeding for disobeying the order.

Section 12 of this Act empowers the High Court and Supreme Court to punish anyone for contempt of Court.A person can be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or fine with two thousand rupees or both. The accused may be discharged on apology made to the satisfaction of court.

The Constitution of India provides specific provision for contempt of Court:

  1. Article 129: The Supreme Court shall be a Court of record and shall have the powers of such a Court including the power to punish for contempt itself.
  2. Article 215: Every High Court shall be a Court of record and shall have all the powers of such a Court including the power to punish for contempt of itself.
  3. Article 142(2): subject to the law made by parliament, the Supreme Court shall have all the power to make any order for the purpose of securing the attendance of any person, the discovery or production of any documents, or investigation or punishment of any contempt itself.

The power to punish for contempt of Court cannot be taken away from the Courts by making any enactment, because this is constitutional power of the Court.

There is always conflict between the Courts power to punish for its contempt and the fundamental right of individual that is freedom of speech and expression (Article 19(1)(a)) and personal liberty (Article 21), but Supreme Court in several cases held that there are reasonable restriction on the fundamental right and it is important to punish for contempt of Court for making respect of judiciary.

Section 20 of Contempt of Court Act, gives provision for limitation for actions for contempt, no Court shall initiate any proceeding of contempt, either on its own motion or otherwise, after the expiry of a period of one year from the date on which the contempt is alleged have been committed.

In case of Pallav Seth Vs Custodian and Others, (2001) 7 SCC 549 wherein the Supreme Court has elaborately discussed all circumstances of Section 20. Supreme Court held that High Courts can’t invoke the power of Article 215 of the Constitution in all cases by entertaining the contempt application beyond one year, so as to eradicate the provision of Section 20 of Contempt of Court Act.

The High Court on exceptional circumstances, on arriving a conclusion that a gross injustice to the society or case is of public importance, the inherent powers provided under Article 215 of the Constitution of India can be exercised without reference of Section 20 of Contempt of Court Act.

In case of Baradakanta Mishra Vs Justice Gatikrushna Misra, the Hon’ble Justice B.S Dhillon held that, the world ‘initiation’ stated in Section 20 of the Contempt of Court Act, has a definite connotation and cannot be equated with the mere presentation of the petition. It has been observed that, initiation of the contempt proceeding is the time when the Court applies its mind to the allegation in the petition and decides to direct, under Section 17 the alleged contemner to show cause why he should not be punished.

Arundhati Roy case: In 2002, author and activist Arundhati Roy was held liable in contempt of Court by Supreme Court for writing an article. She criticize the case related to Narmada dam project, which allows the construction of the dam despite concern about its impact on environment and displacement of local communities. The SC took suo motu cognizance and imposed a fine of Rs. 2000.

Prashant Bhushan case: He is prominent lawyer and activist in India. In 2020, he has posted two tweet, one tweet which criticized the Chief Justice of India for riding a Harley Davidson without wearing face mask or halmet during COVID-19 pandemic. In another tweet, he commented on role of last four Chief Justices of India that how democracy has been destroyed in India even without formal emergency. The Supreme court took suo motu and found him guilty of contempt and imposed a fine of Rs. 1 on him. The court gave him an option to apologize, but he refused to do so.

The contempt of Court is a legal to uphold and to maintain the dignity of judiciary by penalizing the person who illegally interfere in the administration of justice. While it is essential to maintain the respect and dignity of the Courts and rule of law. Courts should also maintain the balance between the judicial integrity and safeguarding personal freedom of speech and expression.

Cases like Prashant Bhushan and Arundhati Roy highlight the complexities and contravention of freedom of speech to contempt of Court. Critics argue that these laws can be misused to infringe the fundamental rights. As society starts debating around the freedom of speech, accountability and transparency, it is now crucial to revisit the provisions of contempt laws, and maintain balance between judicial independent and democratic values of the Constitution of India.


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