With the aim of providing peace and harmony in the society and proper regulation of laws, the organs of the government have been bifurcated into Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary, each having their distinctive functions, provided under the Constitution. The interpretation of the Constitution is the role of the Judiciary. It also overlooks for the violation of the fundamental rights of the citizens. Judiciary is said to be independent from the influence of other organs. Over time, in cases where the state has not provided protection to individuals, the judiciary has stepped in.
To make judicial proceedings effective and unescapable, the court of law has been given powers to punish an individual for its contempt. Contempt of Court refers to the offense of showing disrespect to the authority of the court. The need for the power of contempt is to punish the willful defiance of court orders, preserve the authority of law, and to safeguard the judicial institution from unfair commentaries. The Supreme Court of India has held Advocate Prashant Bhushan for criminal contempt of court in context of a tweet targeting the four previous Chief Justices of India.
Constitutional provisions regarding Contempt
Article 129 of the Indian Constitution makes Supreme Court a 'court of record' and confers it with powers to punish for its contempt. But, as cited in Hira Lal Vs. State of Uttar Pradesh1, the extraordinary power must be sparingly exercised only where the public interest demands. Furthermore, Article 142(2) grants the power of investigation and punishment for contempt of itself. Article 215 confers the power of contempt to the High Courts.
The procedure for the same has been defined in the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. According to Section 2 of the act, Contempt of Court includes both Civil and Criminal Contempt, where 'Civil Contempt' is willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, or writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of any undertaking given to the court and; 'Criminal Contempt' means the publication(whether by words spoken or written by signs or by visible representation or otherwise) of any matter or doing of any act which scandalizes the authority of the court, interferes with course of any judicial proceeding or obstructs the administration of justice in any manner. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 was amended in 2006 to include justification by truth as a defense.
The judicial proceedings and orders of the court are required to be followed to maintain the administration of justice in the society. Judiciary, in order to sustain public support and reputation, need to have binding rules for the enforcement of its judgment. The power of contempt helps a judge in discharging their duties without fear. The relevance of the law can be traced from the high number of contempt cases in both the Supreme Court and the High Courts. In Delhi Judicial Services Assn. Vs. State of Gujarat2, the Supreme Court under Article 129 held that it also has power to punish for contempt of subordinate courts. For a country with a written constitution like ours, the judiciary needs to check whether the legislative and executive are working within the scope of the constitution.
India is a democratic country with the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression as a Fundamental Right under Article 19(1)(a), whereas the provisions relating to criminal contempt obliges an individual to speak freely against the functioning of courts. Fear of punishment can suppress necessary criticism and impart the judiciary powers with no barriers. The arbitrary use of this power can damage the democratic system and give rise to a despotic one. In Subrata Roy Vs. Union of India3 and re Vinay Chandra Mishra4 , the Supreme Court defined its power under Article 129 and 142 as unlimited and independent of any statue i.e., Contempt of Courts Act 1971.
It is said that in a democracy, the organs are supposed to keep a check on each other and that is how a democracy works. With the absolute power of contempt provision, the courts can escape every minor instance of criticism which, in a longer run, can pamper the nature of a self-governing system as ours. Evidence from precedents also proclaims infringement of the Right to freedom of speech and expression. The power of punishment for contempt, on the other hand, is necessary to deal with contemnors willingly damaging the prominence of the judiciary. So, the laws and procedures for determining contempt must be examined.
1 AIR 1954 SC 743
2 1991 4 SCC 406
3 AIR 2014 SC 3241
4 1995 2 SCC 584