Contempt of court has been one of the most debated topic for decades and it has once again come to controversy with the Honourable supreme court recent judgement in Prashant Bhushan case where it convicted the celebrated lawyer over its tweets on judiciary.
The concept contempt of court has its origin in England where the law of contempt of court was linked to kingship and sovereignty as the judges administering justice derived the authority from the King and sat in the courts to administer justice in King’s name. Thus disgrace or disregard of the rule of law or offence against the dignity of a court or a judge commonly known as Contempt of Court was considered an insult to the King himself.
Whether such traditional reasoning should guard the existence of contempt law in a modern democratic country is a different topic of discussion but the present article is aimed at comparing some Indian cases of contempt of court and comparison of Indian law with US and UK in regard to the law of contempt.
COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS WITH SOME INDIAN CASES AND WITH LAWS IN US AND UK
The defamatory statements against the judiciary are not uncommon in our country. One such case was The State of Maharashtra vs. Chandrakant Tripathi and Others1 The State Minister Chandrakant Tripathi made a statement at an inaugural function –
“Under the present judicial system even criminals are given benefit of doubt and are acquitted if there are no witnesses or if they turn hostile. The innocent are sentenced. Courts grant stay orders frequently due to which it becomes impossible for the Government to carry out works of public benefit in time. The Maharashtra Government will soon publish a book showing how many works are lying pending due to stay orders of the Court”
Contempt proceeding was initiated against the minister but the honourable Bombay court held that they need not pursue the matter further and decide as to whether the impugned speech constitutes a contempt. The honourable court dropped the proceeding by adopting a charitable attitude.
In another instance of derogatory statement on judiciary, Justice Bharucha2 in 2001 in a speech during law day function, he said at a conference in Delhi in February, “20 per cent of Indian judicial officers, i.e, judges in the lower courts, were corrupt”
A Petition for initiating contempt proceeding was dismissed by the Rajasthan court noting that “courts were not supposed to be too sensitive to stretch the law of contempt too far“
But in E.M. Sankaran Namboodiripad vs T. Narayanan Nambiar3 where, the accused made a statement “the Judges are guided and dominated by class hatred, class interests and class prejudices and where the evidence is balanced between a well-dressed, potbellied rich man and a poor, ill-dressed and illiterate person the judge instinctively favours the former judiciary is part of the class rule of the ruling class” The accused was convicted for contempt of court.
Now if one looks at the statements itself in above cases it is difficult to understand how the statement in Sankaran case lowered the image of judiciary but not in Chandrakant case, they both held a high-rank office, both made the allegation on how court favours one and is biased towards other, but in Chandrakant case and justice Bharucha case, the court took a liberal or charitable approach. This might be because there is no test or exhaustive definition on what scandalises court image on the basis of which it can be decided how court image is hampered, a very wide power is given to judiciary in this context and it is not sparingly used in all the cases.
While in USA the Law of Contempt has not been abolished but the courts there follow the ‘clear and present danger’ test to determine the validity of the restriction on freedom of speech by the law of contempt.
England has abolished the offence of scandalising the court by its Law Commission 20124 citing the law as “an infringement of freedom of expression that should not be retained without strong principled or practical justification”.
Although it may not be feasible at present to abolish the law as done in UK as it is a necessary restriction on freedom of speech as envisaged under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, what is required is to strike a balance between the two, this can be done by incorporating some principle or some test like in US on the basis of which contempt cases ought to be decided. There needs to be a clear distinction between criticism and contempt, not all criticism should be taken as contempt.
In addition the weapon of contempt of court should not be used in routine nature but rather be exercised where there is any imminent or present danger on the image and integrity of court. The image of court cannot be vandalised by a few statements, its integrity is decided by the quality of judgement it delivers.
When it comes to corruption allegation on judiciary prosecuting the person who made the statement might be seen as seeking to conceal the wrongdoing, prosecuting them hardly upholds the dignity of judges in such cases rather a factual analysis should be done.
As said by the well-known Author Sumanta Banerjee5 “The manner in which contempt proceedings are often initiated at the drop of a hat by some aggrieved members of the judiciary makes one wonder whether this tendency is not becoming comparable to the invocation of the blasphemy law by the religious establishment in Pakistan”
1. Criminal Application No. 1422 of 1981 Decided On: 09.09.1983 The State of Maharashtra Vs. Chandrakant Tripathi and Ors.
3. Criminal Appeal No. 56 of 1968 Decided On: 31.07.1970 E.M. Sankaran Namboodripad Vs. T. Narayanan Nambiar
4.https://s3-eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/lawcom-prod-storage 11jsxou24uy7q /uploads/2015/06/lc335_scandalising_the_ court .pdf
5. Economic and Political Weekly, Mar. 9-15, 2002, Vol. 37, No. 10 (Mar. 9-15, 2002), pp. 919-921
This article has been written by Hitesh, Student At Faculty Of Law, University Of Delhi.
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