Contempt of Court Act in a Nutshell

Concept of contempt of court

The concept of contempt of court came into existence in India with the enactment of the Constitution of India. By including the concept the Constitution puts some restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression, and the personal liberty it otherwise guarantees.

The Article 129 of the Constitution confers on the Supreme Court (SC) the power to punish when there is an instance of contempt of itself. The Article 215 confers a corresponding power on the High Court as well.

The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, gives statutory backing to the measures to address contempt of court. The act is intended to safeguard the status and dignity of the courts in the interest of justice dispensation.

Kinds of contempt: civil & criminal

The law classifies contempt of court into two kinds: civil contempt and criminal contempt.

Civil contempt is quite simple. It is willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, directions, order, or other process of a court. It includes any willful breach of an undertaking given by anybody to a court as well. Any willful disobedience to the orders of the court, or abstain from doing any act, or breach of any undertaking given to the court, is prima facie civil contempt. But mistake of law in interpreting the order by a person does not amount to contempt of court.

Criminal contempt is a bit complex issue. It has three forms or occurs in following three ways:

When any publication of any matter by words, written or spoken, signs and actions or any action of such nature:

  1. scandalises or tends to scandalise or lower or tends to lower the authority of any court
  2. prejudices or interferes with any judicial proceeding, or
  3. interferes with or obstructs the administration of justice in any other manner.

The purpose of this provision is to protect the court from tendentious attacks which may lower its authority, defame its public image and make the public lose faith in it altogether.

Mere disobedience will not amount to criminal contempt. It becomes civil contempt alone. Contempt proceeding is not a substitute for enforcement of private rights. But circumventing the court order in order to avoid its implementation is nothing but contempt of court.

Innocent publication and distribution of a matter, without knowing it was in existence, is not contempt of court. When taking contempt against an article what should be considered is what the publication creates in the mind of the people when it is read as a whole but not what the author intends. An advocate filing untrue and baseless accusations against any judge amounts to criminal contempt.

Fair and accurate report of judicial proceedings is not contempt. A person making a statement in good faith concerning a presiding officer is not contempt if it is done in good faith. In essence, legitimate criticism is permissible but illegitimate insinuation is not permissible.

Contempt in the face of the court

It is a direct form of contempt. It happens in the Supreme Court or the High court during its presence or hearing. The Section 14 of the Contempt of Courts act deals with it.

In such a case the person should be detained in custody and then before the rising of the court on the same day, the person may be informed in writing of the contempt which he is charged with, afford him an opportunity to put up his defence, take necessary evidence immediately or later, and make such orders for punishment or discharge.

If the person wants the charge is tried by a judge other than before whom the contempt occurred the matter will be placed before the chief justice with the facts to have a proper decision in that regard. In that case the judge whose presence the thing occurred need not be called as a witness.

Criminal contempt of subordinate courts

When the Supreme Court or High Court considers the case of criminal contempt in the subordinate court, the court can take suo motu action or action on a resolution by the Advocate General or by a person with the consent of the AG or a law officer in the case of Union Territory of Delhi. In such a contempt case, the contempt can be taken by the High Court on a reference made by the subordinate court also. The Section 15 of the Contempt of Courts Act deals with tis kind of contempt.

The High court has power to take action of contempt of itself and the subordinate courts as well. All courts subordinate to the high court will come under this jurisdiction. The high court can take action against it suo motu or on a petition made by a party. The High Court can adopt its own procedure but it should be fair and reasonable by all means.

The Subordinate Court making a reference to the High Court has to examine the facts and see whether a reference is required to be made or not, by following the principles of natural justice as not procedure is prescribed for that. The High court can take suo motu proceedings on the basis of factors come to its notice, as well.

Before taking cognizance by the court, a notice along with the motion which contempt is based on and the affidavit filed along with it, should be served to the persons concerned.

If the person may abscond, his property can be attached. The court can compel the respondent to attend the court, by warrant for arrest. The respondent needs to attend the court on the first day of hearing but later he can take permission of the court to absent himself. The person charged with the contempt can file an affidavit in his defence. The court can take other evidence also while proving the offence.

Such contempt cases are heard by a bench of not less than two judges. The summary procedure will be followed in trial proceedings. But the court can order cross examination of any witness whose affidavit has been filed in the matter.

Certain other kinds of contempt

Every court – civil, criminal or revenue – is authorised by Section 345 of the CrPC to take action on some kinds of contempt committed to the court in its presence, in order to preserve the dignity and decorum of every court. Such contempt is applicable in respect of five kinds of offence as follows:

  1. Intentional omission to produce a document by a person legally bound to produce it (Section 175 of the IPC)
  2. Refusal to take oath when duly required to take one (Section 178 IPC)
  3. Refusal to answer questions by one who is legally bound to state the truth (Section 179 IPC)
  4. Refusal to sign a statement made to a public servant when legally required to do so ( Section 180 IPC)
  5. Intentional insult or interruption to a public servant sitting in any stage of a judicial proceeding ( Section 228 IPC)

If any such offence is committed in the presence of the court, it may detain the offender in custody and may take cognisance of the offence, giving the offender an opportunity to show why he should not be punished, on the same day before rising of the court. The court can sentence the offender to a fine not exceeding Rs 200 and in default of payment of fine to simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one month.

In case the court is of the opinion that the offence deserves a heavier punishment the court shall refer the case to the jurisdictional magistrate court to proceed further under Section 346 CrPC.

A Judge is liable for contempt

A judge or Magistrate shall also be liable for contempt of his own or other court as any other individual is liable to such an action.

But no observation or remarks made by a judicial officer while acting judicially can be treated as contempt of court. Appeal is the only remedy in any judicial observation or remarks by a judicial officer.

Punishment for the offence

The punishment for contempt of court is simple imprisonment for a term up to six months or with a fine up to Rs. 2,000/-.

Whether a sentence of fine alone would be sufficient or whether a term in the civil prison should be imposed must be decided objectively. Punishing a contemnor is not an act of retribution. It is only an attempt to uphold the majesty of law by protecting public interest.

Acceptance of apology in lieu of punishment is not a rule but an exception. Issuing words of censure by the court is a great punishment for a person who holds public office.

What things do not amount to contempt of court?

Fair and accurate reporting of judicial proceedings will not amount to contempt of court, nor is any fair criticism on the merits of a judicial order after a case is heard and disposed of.

An action which does not interfere with the due course of justice does not amount to contempt of court.

Truth is a defence against a contempt charge

The Contempt of Court Act 1971 was amended in 2006 and introduced truth as a valid defence, if it was made in public interest and was invoked in a bona fide manner.

The amendment recognised truth and good faith as valid defences against contempt of court charge. Earlier, truth could not be used as a valid defence to protect an individual from contempt.

Appeal in contempt case

If the order for punishment in contempt is from a single bench of the high court an appeal shall lie to the bench of two judges.

If the order is of a two judge bench the appeal of that order shall lie to the Supreme Court.

Limitation for contempt cases

No court shall initiate any proceedings 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 committed.

The appeal court can suspend the trial court order or release the appellant while the appeal is pending. Both things can be done by the High court also when a person aggrieved by an order satisfies it that he prefers an appeal.

Important case laws on contempt

In Sudhakar Prasad v Govt. of A.P. and Ors, the SC declared that the powers of contempt are inherent in nature. The provisions of the Constitution only recognize the said pre-existing situation. The provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 are in addition to and not in derogation of Articles 129 and 215 of the Constitution. Therefore the provisions of Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 cannot be used for limiting or regulating the exercise of jurisdiction contemplated by the said two Articles.

In Kanwar Singh Saini v High Court of Delhi, the SC held that once the suit is decreed, if there is a grievance of non-compliance with the terms of the decree passed in the suit, a remedy available to the aggrieved person is to approach the Execution Court. But he cannot resort to contempt proceedings, by invoking Order 39 Rule 2A of the Civil Procedure Code (CPC). The provision is available only during the pendency of the suit and not after the conclusion of the trial. Therefore the contempt jurisdiction cannot be used to enforce a decree passed in a civil suit.

In D.N. Taneja v Bhajan Lal, the SC stated that any person, who moves the court for contempt, only brings to the notice of the court certain facts constituting contempt of court. After furnishing the said information, he may assist the court but at the end of the day, there are only two parties in such proceedings, the court and the contemnor.

Additional Reading

  1. Sudhakar Prasad v Govt. of A.P. and Ors, at
  2. Kanwar Singh Saini v High Court of Delhi, at
  3. D.N. Taneja v Bhajan Lal, at