Author: Riya Shetty, FYLLB, Jitendra Chauhan College of Law


“Law is not law if it violates the principles of eternal justice”

-Lydia Maria Child

The concept of “Democracy” lays down its pillars on the fact that its people are supreme and they are the decision-makers. While Article 19(1) (a) grants the freedom of speech and expression to all its citizens but on the other hand Articles 129 and 215 grants the “power of contempt of court” to its higher judiciary that limits the freedom granted under article 19 (1) (a) that becomes detrimental in cases where conduct disrespects or disregards or hinders with the integrity of any party during serving law as officials or somehow working as judicial server that forms the crux of “CONTEMPT”. Thus, contempt of court becomes imperative in order to protect the judicial institutions from motivated attacks and unwarranted criticisms and as a legal mechanism, punish those who try to lower its authority and this is what this article intends to draw into the limelight but before we dive deeper into the concept, it is important to understand the term “contempt”, so,


The term contempt of court better known as “Contemptus Curiae” having laid down its historic foundations since centuries, is a medium that courts use to forbid or punish conduct that inclines itself towards obstructing, humiliating or rather prejudicing the courts of law either in relation to a particular case or in general. In the case study of Attorney-General v. Times Newspapers Ltd [1], the term “Contempt of Court” is referred to as an act with respect to a particular court of law proceeding that opposes the dignity of the courts by undermining the system. In layman’s language, when one is disrespectful towards the court of law, that is, we willfully do not obey the court order or disrespect the legal authorities, as per law that person could be punished under the law by imposing of fines or imprisonment for a certain period if found guilty of contempt of court.


The idea of contempt that holds its origin in ancient times when the king who was regarded as the fountain of justice would personally hear cases. His decision in the matter was held absolute and final and anyone condemning him would be punished. With the advancement in time, due to an increase in the number of cases, the burden of the king was shifted to a separate body known as the “Judges” that went on to be laid down in the laws during the time. The concept in India has originated from the British Law that holds immense relevance with respect to upholding the respect and dignity of the court of law and protecting them from any externally motivated humiliation. Hence, in order to bring about some transparency, the Contempt of Court Act, 1926 was passed but since it lacked provisions in relation to the contempt of courts lower to the Chief Courts and Judicial Commissioner’s Court, it was replaced by the Contempt of Court Act, 1952. Soon, due to the undefined nature of the Act, on the recommendation of the committee headed by HN Sanyal the Act was lastly replaced by the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 which explained the idea of justice in a very pragmatic manner.


The Contempt of Court Act, 1971 divides the expression of “contempt of court” into two categories:

  • Civil Contempt:

Under Section 2(b)[2], civil contempt is defined as willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, order, direction or any other process of court or willful breach of an undertaking given to the court.

  • Criminal Contempt:

Under Section 2(c)[3] of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971, criminal contempt has been defined as the publication of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which:

(i) Scandalizes or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court, OR
(ii) Prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with the due course of any judicial proceeding, OR
(iii) Interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.

A person is accused of contempt of court when:

  • Disobedience to any type of court proceeding, its orders, judgment or decree is done willfully in case of Civil Contempt.
  • In Criminal Contempt, “publication” being the most important thing, should be done either spoken or written or by words or signs or visible representation.
  • The court should make a valid offer and with the knowledge of the respondent.
  • The action of the contemnor should be deliberate and clearly disregard the court’s order.

In Rama Narang vs. Ramesh Narang and Anr [4] the father, Rama Narang has filed a petition against his children from his first marriage, the respondents here, Ramesh and Rajesh Narang with respect to the shareholdings and control and management of the company, NHL and Fashion Wears Pvt. Ltd to which the respondents argued in relation to the maintainability of the contempt petition filed by the petitioner before Supreme Court by stating that the consent order brought forward before the court did not contain a court injunction and hence does not result in contempt of court. The Supreme Court held that the consent terms arrived at between the parties before it formed a part of the order passed by the court and hence violating the terms of the consent order and in relation to it would amount to a violation of the Court’s order and in hence punishable under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

In J.R Parashar v. Prashant Bhushan[5], a dharna that was organized by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, being aggrieved by a judgment in relation to the building of a dam over the Narmada river by the respondent, here Prashant Bhushan and others who attacked and assaulted the respondent. It was held that a dharna on its own will not cause a contempt of court but during the course of it, but in the course of it, if any of the proceedings of the court are hindered as a result of its presiding officers being prevented from appearing before the court, then it will result in contempt of court respectively.

Having considered this, there are certain cases like innocent publication and distribution of matter or fair and accurate reporting of judicial proceedings or fair criticism on the merits of a judicial order after a case is heard and disposed of or complaints against any presiding officer of subordinate courts, if made in good faith, would NOT amount to “Contempt of court”. Contempt jurisdiction as a whole plays an important role in is maintaining the dignity of the judiciary and protecting the court proceedings from any external interference.

PUNISHMENT IN CASE OF CONTEMPT OF COURT:                                                                 

In our country, the Supreme Court and the High Court have the power to punish in case of contempt of Court. As per the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 a contempt could be punished with simple imprisonment that may extend up to 6 months or with a fine of up to Rs 2,000 or both and in civil cases, if a fine is not considered sufficient to justice, then the court can sentence a person to civil prison instead of simple imprisonment.


The fourth pillar of our democracy that initiated the trend of changing the viewpoint of our society in an effective manner and bringing the accused behind bars is that of “MEDIA”. The Constitution of India guarantees the freedom of speech and expression to all its citizens that also includes freedom of the press, which means that for a democracy to grow, an effective and powerful media that activates the thinking process of its citizens is a MUST. With the advancement in times, media is an effective tool with respect to bringing forth such people accused of contempt of court who usually don’t come out due to their power and reputation which they wrongly use to mislead the people.

In Justice C.S. Karnan vs Supreme Court Of India[6], Justice CS Karnan who served in the Madras High Court for eight years before he was transferred to the Calcutta High Court had been hitting the news usually due to his disagreements and ruthless behaviour towards the Judiciary due to which it was evident that he had a history of allegations against him. He was involved in a controversial judgment passed by him in June 2013 for the promise of marriage and premarital sex. In 2014 he claimed that appointment of certain judges & selection was unfair and he wants to file an affidavit in his name. In the same year, in August, he again spoke for the appointment of Justice Kaul as Madras HC chief justice. It was believed by the people that the issue was again based on discrimination. 20 judges sent a memorandum to the CJI asking that Justice Karnan to be transferred as they find it difficult to work with him at similar premises post which in January following which in January 2017, Justice CS Karnan complained about 20 judges of the High Court and Supreme Court post which the contempt court proceedings were initiated. A day before his hearing, Karnan passed an order “sentencing” the seven senior-most Judges of the Supreme Court including the then Chief Justice of India, Jagdish Singh Khehar, to 5 years of imprisonment under the SC/ST Act. A seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the then Chief Justice of India J S Khehar directed that Justice Karnan be arrested “forthwith”. He was found guilty of contempt of court, judiciary and judicial process.  The Supreme Court had taken suo motu cognizance in relation to Karnan’s misconduct. He was subsequently transferred to the Kolkata high court after which he retired and subsequently a week after that, he was sentenced to 6 months of imprisonment for contempt of court.

In an ongoing case of contempt against Advocate Prashant Bhushan, Prashant Bhushan was accused of “serious contempt of court”, for his tweets against the Chief Justice of India and another on the judiciary as a whole in the relation which the top court decided to grant him three days’ time to reconsider his statement refusing to apologise to which Advocate Bhushan refrained from apologizing, despite several warnings given. During the August 25th hearing, Attorney General for India K.K. Venugopal suggested that the bench comprising of Justice Arun Mishra, B.R. Gavai and Krishna Murari, adopt a compassionate view with respect to this case and drop the case by just giving a warning and letting go. Senior Advocate Rajeev Dhawan representing activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan was of the view that the court must not insist on an apology every time and that a bona fide statement or explanation given by an alleged contemnor should be sufficient while the Supreme Court found the justification provided by Advocate Prashant Bhushan in relation to his tweets absolutely inappropriate while they continued to state that this kind of behaviour wasn’t expected by a senior member like him. Finally, the Supreme Court went ahead and reserved its verdict after hearing the arguments on the sentencing of Bhushan in the suo moto criminal contempt case.


Both the CS Karnan and Prashant Bhushan cases are in relation to the contempt of court that has a maximum punishment of 6 months imprisonment or Rs 2,000 fine or both. On one hand where the Supreme Court decides to reverse its verdict and let go Advocate Prashant Bhushan escape the arena of contempt with just a warning, wasn’t awarding Justice CS Karnan with maximum punishment and sentencing without even initiating the proceedings for his impeachment, a failure of the test of law and compassion in itself? The rule of law is applicable in case of every error-prone person and hence they need to be dealt with a lot of compassion and humility which quite evidently didn’t happen in Advocate Karnan’s case. The fact that a “Hearing” that forms the crux of a fair proceeding, did not happen, in Advocate CS Karnan’s case, further compromises the order of the Supreme Court. It is true that the media as a whole plays a very important role in bringing out the truth and are hence adhered to be the best democratic tool to achieve the righteous information on the account but the bias treatment of the media in the CS Karnan case was unfair with respect to Advocate Prashant Bhushan’s that was generating so much heat. This becomes very obvious with the open letter written by Advocate Prashant Bhushan to the media via which he expresses his grief over the selective coverage of his case. In my opinion, it goes without saying that the outrage was selective and unbias.


In a country like India, the rapid increase in the number of its contempt cases justifies its continued relevance with the Act till date. But, in my opinion, even if this Act has to continue and be used as a medium of delivering justice to its masses, there are some aspects of the law that still require to be reformed as it still continues to remain unambiguous in certain aspects. Doesn’t a failure in the task of balancing the freedom of speech and expression vitiate the very concept of the Contempt Act, 1971 of delivery fair and impartial justice without any bias? In my opinion, to reach this very goal, the court in the first place needs to have a clear mindset to accept fair criticism to deliver justice. Secondly, the contempt jurisdiction needs to be made applicable to every citizen equally without there being any scope for bias treatment and a proper criterion needs to be set up for a better understanding of the scope of the Act.

[1] [1973] 3 All ER 54

[2] The Contempt of Court Act, 1971, Universal Law Publication.

[3] Supra Note 2

[4] 2006(11) SCC 114

[5] (2001) 6 SCC 735

[6]AIR 2017 SC 3191

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