What Are the Defences Allowed in Contempt Proceedings?


In India Judiciary forms one of the three main pillars of the Government. The makers of the constitution upheld the sanctity and prestige of the judiciary since it ensures justice and equality to every individual and institutions. Articles 129 and 215 of the constitution of India, enables the courts to hold individuals in contempt if they attempt to demean or belittle their authority.

Being disrespectful towards the court of law and towards its officers in the form of behaviour that opposes/challenges the authority, justice and dignity of the court, is termed as “Contempt of Court”. Contempt of court may be civil or criminal contempt. It is defined in Section 2(a) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

Civil contempt is wilful disobedience of any judgment, decree, direction, order etc. This is a case on the wilful disobedience of the court order: –

Utpal Kumar Das v. Court of the Munsiff, Kamrup[1]: It is a case of non-rendering of assistance, although the court has ordered to render assistance. The Decree was executed by the court to deliver immovable property but because of certain obstruction, the defendant failed to do so. Hence, he was held liable for disobedience to the orders of the competent Civil Court.

This is a case of breach of an undertaking which leads to Contempt of Court.

Criminal contempt is a publication of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which

  • Tends to scandalise or lower the authority of any court or
  • prejudices, or interferes with, the due course of any judicial proceeding or interferes with, or obstructs, the administration of justice in any other manner.

Criminal Contempt is defined in Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971.

Essentials of Contempt of Court

The essentials are as follows:

  1. Disobedience to any type of court proceedings, its orders, judgment, decree, etc should be done ‘wilfully’ in case of Civil Contempt.
  2. In Criminal Contempt ‘publication’ is the most important thing and this publication can be either spoken or written, or by words, or by signs, or by visible representation.
  3. The court is required to make a ‘valid order’ and this order should be in ‘knowledge’ of the respondent.
  4. The action of contemnor should be deliberate and also it should be clearly disregard of the court’s order.

Defences in Contempt

Defences In Civil Contempt: A person charged with civil contempt of court can take the following defences-:

Order disobeyed is vague or ambiguous:  If the order that is disobeyed itself is not clear, incomplete in nature and the direction given through the order is dependent on certain other facts which are unclear or inadequate, then such dis-obeying is not contempt.

In the case of Dulal ChandraBhar vs Sukumar Banerjee[2], The SC held that in an order of imprisonment or attachment of property by a court if the details of persons to be arrested were not specified nor the particulars of the properties to be attached were mentioned, then this will not be considered as an order disobeyed because of its ambiguity.

No knowledge of the order

Generally, a person cannot be held guilty for contempt with respect of an order of which he claims to be unaware. If the respondent commits an act which results in a breach of the order of which he had no actual knowledge, then there is no wilful disobedience of the order[3].

Disobedience or breach was not wilful

The disobedience has taken place but it was due to accidental, administrative or other reasons beyond the control of the party concerned. This plea can be fruitful on the condition that the order has been complied with and a reasonable explanation has been given for non- compliance.

The order involves more than one reasonable interpretation.

If there is a court order and it involves more than one reasonable and rational interpretation, the respondent with his understanding adopts one of those interpretations and acts in accordance with it, he cannot be held liable for contempt of court. This defence is available only when a valid question of interpretation arises. In case of T.M.A. Pai Foundation vs. State of Karnataka[4] it was held that this defence won’t be allowed if doubt about the order has been deliberately created when actually there is no doubt at all.

Compliance of the order is impossible

In civil contempt proceedings, one of the valid defence is that the compliance of the order is impossible. But sometimes the court rejects the plea that the order may be difficult to comply with but not impossible as in case of Amar Singh v. K.P.Geetakrishnan.

The order has been passed without jurisdiction

If the order whose contempt is alleged, has been passed by a court which had no jurisdiction to pass it, its violation would not amount to contempt of court because an order passed without jurisdiction is void.

Defences Against Criminal Contempt (Section 3 to 7 of the contempt of Court Act 1971)

Innocent publication and distribution of matter.
S.3 deals with this defence. The contemnor may plead under Sections 3(1), 3(2) and 3(3), if on the ground that he is responsible for the publication or for distribution of publication which prejudices or interferes with the pending proceedings, criminal contempt is initiated against a person.

A fair and accurate report of judicial proceedings
A person publishing a fair and accurate report of any judicial proceedings should not be held guilty of Contempt of Court under Section 4 of the Act.

A fair criticism of the judicial act
If a person publishes any fair comment on the merits of any case which has been finally decided, (however, not in case of pending proceedings) he shall not be guilty of criminal contempt under Section 5 of the Act.

In the famous case of Arundhati Roy, the SC has held that judicial criticism cannot be petitioned under the excuse of Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.

Bonafide complaint against the presiding officer of a subordinate court.
S.6 provides if a person has made a complaint in good faith against the presiding officer of any subordinate court to the High Court or to the Court to which he is sub-ordinate then that person shall not be guilty of contempt of court in respect of any statement made by him.

Subsections (1) & (2) of S. 7 of the Act provides that if a person has published an accurate summary of the whole or any part of the order made by the court in camera (in Chamber) unless the court has expressly prohibited, that a person shall not be guilty of Contempt of Court.

Defences allowed in a Contempt proceeding

A new Section 13 has been used to replace the old one, (No substantial interference with due course of justice) by the Contempt of Courts (Amendment) Act, 2006. This new Section 13 provides that no Court should impose a sentence for Contempt of Court unless the Contempt is of such a nature that it significantly interferes or tends to interfere with the due course of justice.”[5]

Justification by the truth:  The new Section 13(2) provides that the Court may[6], in any proceeding for criminal contempt allows justification by truth as a valid defence if it is satisfied that it is in the public interest and it is bonafide[7]. However, under this Act, no court shall impose a sentence until it is satisfied that the contempt is of a nature that it significantly interferes, or tends significantly to interfere with the due course of justice.

In Kapildeo Prasad Sah and Others vs State of Bihar and others, the apex court held that it would be a violation of the principle of Rule of Law if there is a disobedience of the court’s order.

Sections  14 and 15 of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 deal with the procedure of Contempt proceeding.  Section 14 of the Contempt of Court provides for the procedure of contempt proceeding in the face of the court of record. On the other hand, Section 15 deals with the procedure of the contempt proceeding outside the court of records. The power to punish for its contempt inherently lies with these courts of record.

These courts of record can, therefore, deal with the matter of contempt by making their own procedures. The courts of record, while exercising the contempt jurisdiction must bear that the only case to be observed is that the procedure adopted must be fair and reasonable in which the alleged contemnor should be given full opportunity to defend himself.


One very important thing to remember is that the laws regarding contempt have been made for preserving the dignity of the courts and also for administering justice properly.  It is very important for non-interference in the court proceeding on whims and fancies and on baseless accounts. It is also important to uphold the authority of the court and the Judge in the eyes of the people. Having said that, there is also no room for prejudice when it comes to the defence of the respondent in cases of contempt proceedings.

[1] AIR 2008 Gau62..2008(2)GauLR706

[2] AIR 1958 Cal 474

[3] Mariyappa vs. V.R. Ramkrishna Rao 1999 Cri. L.J. 1378 (Karn-DB).

[4] (2002) 8 SCC 481

[5] Radhakrishna Kurup vs. Travancor Devaswom Board, 2010 (3) KLTSN 83 (SC).

[6] Emphasis supplied.

[7] Dr. Subramanian Swamy vs. Arun Shourie 2014 (3) RCR (Criminal) 797

This Article is Authored by Ashutosh SIngh, 4th Year BA.LLB(H), Student of Amity Law School, AMity University, Kolkata.

Also Read – Criminal Justice System In India

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