Topic: General Studies 2
- Structure, organization and functioning of the Judiciary
- Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.
Contempt of Court: Prashant Bhushan Controversy
Context: The Supreme Court has initiated suo motu proceedings for criminal contempt against Advocate Prashant Bhushan for two of his tweets on Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde as well as former CJIs
Who is Prashant Bhushan?
Prashat Bhushan is a lawyer-activist whose work has contributed to various legislations. He has also been outspoken critic of some of the drawbacks of Judiciary.
What were those tweets?
- In one of his tweets, Bhushan had written about the “role of the Supreme Court” in the “destruction” of democracy during the last 6 years, and had also mentioned the “role of the last 4 CJIs” in it.
- In another tweet, Bhushan had commented on Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde astride a Harley Davidson bike. He had questioned the CJI for riding a bike without a helmet and a face mask, while “he keeps the SC in lockdown mode”.
What does contempt of court mean?
- Contempt of court is an act of disrespect or disobedience towards a judge or court’s officers or interference with its orderly process.
- The Contempt of Courts Act of 1971 categorises contempt of courts as
- Civil contempt: It is willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other processes of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to the court.
- Criminal contempt: Anything that “scandalises or tends to scandalise” the judiciary or “lowers the court’s authority”
- Safeguards: However, innocent publication and distribution of some matter, fair and reasonable criticism of judicial acts and comment on the administrative side of the judiciary do not amount to contempt of court.
- Punishments: The supreme court and high courts have the power to punish for contempt of court, either with simple imprisonment for a term up to six months or with fine up to 2,000 or with both.
- Amendment in 2006: Truth and good faith were recognised as valid defences against charges of contempt of court
What is the significance of Contempt Powers of Judiciary?
- Safeguards the status & dignity of courts: Judicial Contempt power is needed to punish wilful disobedience to court orders as well as interference in the administration of justice and overt threats to judges.
- Protects Judges: Contempt powers help judges to do their duties of deciding cases without fear, favour, affection or ill will
- Ensures Public Trust: It insulates the institution from unfair attacks and prevent a sudden fall in the judiciary’s reputation in the public eye.
Is there any Constitutional Backing for Contempt power for Judiciary?
- Article 129: Grants Supreme Court the power to punish for contempt of itself.
- Article 142(2): Enables the Supreme Court to investigate and punish any person for its contempt.
- Article 215: Grants every High Court the power to punish for contempt of itself.
Criticism of the Contempt Powers of Court
- Not aligned with spirit of Article 19(1)(a): Contempt powers of Court tries to curb people’s freedom to speak against the court’s functioning.
- Liable to Misuse: The law is very subjective which might be used by the judiciary arbitrarily to suppress their criticism by the public.
- Colonial Hangover: Contempt powers of judiciary started during Colonial rule has been continued in India, whereas England abolished the offence of “scandalising the court” in 2013.
- Wrong Signal: These cases show that the country’s highest court is not tolerant of its outspoken critics and that it is highly sensitive to criticism (not the spirit of Democracy)
- Not aligned with Sedition jurisprudence: While the courts have made some effort to narrow the remit of sedition, they have not insisted on a similarly demonstrable link with obstruction of justice of the contemptuous act or speech
- Distorted Priorities of Apex Court: There are dozens of constitutional cases that need to be desperately addressed, such as CAA, the electoral bonds matter, or the issue of habeas corpus petitions from J&K, but SC has chosen to file case based on two tweets of a lawyer Prashant Bhushan
What is the way ahead?
- Besides needing to revisit the need for a law on criminal contempt, even the test for contempt needs to be evaluated.
- If such a test ought to exist at all, it should be whether the contemptuous remarks in question actually obstruct the Court from functioning.
- Contempt Power should not be allowed to be used as a means to prevent any and all criticism of an institution.
Connecting the dots:
- Sedition Law
- Also think about Shreya Singhal Case (related to Freedom in Social Media)