What is Contempt of Court?

Contempt of court is any action or writing, meant to lower the authority of a court or a Judge or to interfere with the course of justice or the lawful process of the court. The Contempt of Court Act, 1971, defines contempt of court to include two kinds- civil and criminal contempt.1 A contempt proceeding is not a dispute between two parties, but rather a proceeding between the court and the person accused of contempt. 2

Types of Contempt of Court 

Contempt of court can be broadly categorized into two – civil and criminal contempt. 

Civil Contempt

Civil contempt refers to:

  • Willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order or writ. For example, D disobeyed a court order to submit her financial records to the court in an ongoing case. This would be an instance of civil contempt. 
  • A willful breach of an undertaking or affidavit given to a court. For example, V submitted an affidavit to the court that she would return certain confidential papers to her employer within a week but failed to return it within that time period. This would be an instance of civil contempt. 3The undertaking or affidavit given to the court can be in the form of a promise or a direction, based on which the court decides whether something was done or not. 4) For example, not following an undertaking/affidavit where a person has promised to pay a certain amount of money to the court. The main intention of this law is to ensure that people uphold the sanctity of the judicial system and obey the directions given by the court.5

    Criminal Contempt

    Criminal contempt does not require the existence of a judgment, order, direction, decree, writ, or undertaking/affidavit. For criminal contempt, the law requires a publication or action or an attempt, which has any of the following consequences:

    1. Scandalises or lower the authority of any court. For example, if someone deliberately defames and raises their voice at a judge. 
    2. Prejudices, or interferes with any court or tribunal proceeding. For example, a false statement made against a judge for collusion in their capacity as a ‘judge’.
    3. Obstructs the administration of justice in any other manner.6  For example, if a person stops municipal authorities who have been told by the Court to demolish a building. 

    The aim of criminal contempt is not to protect the court from insult, but rather to prevent dilution of the public’s faith in the courts.7 

 

  1. Section 2(a), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  2. State of Maharashtra v Mahboob S. Allibhoy, Supreme Court, (1996) 4 SCC 411.[]
  3. Section 2(b), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  4. Jayanta Roy v Howrah Parcel (Eastern Railway) Labour Contractor Mazdur Panchayat, Calcutta HC 2000 (1) CHN 884 (Cal[]
  5. Subrata Kunda v Kshiti Goswami, Calcutta HC, 2010 (1) CHN 306.[]
  6. Section 2(c) , Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  7. Delhi Judicial Service Association, Tis Hazari Court v. the State of Gujarat, (1991) 4 SCC 406.[]

What does the law say you can/cannot do?

While anything that lowers the authority of the courts can be considered as contempt, there are certain exceptions given in the law. 

Innocent publication and distribution of matter

Under the law, if a publication, like a book or an article, tends to prejudice any pending court proceeding, such as publicly discussing unsubstantiated evidence, it will amount to criminal contempt.1) However, the law itself gives certain exceptions where a publication will not amount to contempt on the grounds of prejudicing a pending proceeding. They are:

  • If at the time of publication, the publisher had no reason to believe that such a case was pending.2
  • If no court proceeding was pending at the time of publication.3 
  • If the person is in charge of distributing something that may be seen as contempt and they did not know that it contained anything that would be prejudicial to an ongoing court proceeding.4
  •  However, this defence of ‘innocent distribution’ is not available for the press as the law gives certain criteria to be met for publishing books,5 papers,5 and newspapers6. A person found distributing books, papers, or newspapers that have not met these criteria, will be guilty of contempt.7

Fair and accurate reporting of a judicial proceeding

In India, trials and other judicial proceedings are generally held in open court and are subject to public scrutiny. This is required for a healthy, objective, and fair administration of justice.8 This system relies on numerous reporters that accurately report the daily proceedings in a court. The law protects such legal reporting, provided that it is fair and accurate.9 

The terms ‘fair and accurate, does not mean that the report should be a word-to-word reproduction of the proceedings. Rather, it should relay what has happened in the court,10 and should not misrepresent the court proceedings before the public.11 Unfair reporting that misleads the readers, is not protected by the law and would amount to contempt.12 For example, reporting or quoting an incorrect statement which was not made by a judge on social media.

 

In situations of in-camera trials, which take place in a closed room inside a court, certain forms of reporting may amount to contempt. Some examples of in-camera trials are cases of rape,13) matrimonial disputes,14  etc, In such in-camera proceedings, the reporting of the proceedings, even if they are fair and accurate, will amount to contempt if:

  • Such publication is contrary to or against any existing law.15 For example, reporting of the proceedings in rape trials or child sexual abuse trials are prohibited by law, and a person has to obtain the permission of the court in case they want to still report such matters.16
  • The court has explicitly prohibited such reporting.17 For example, in the evidence stage of a case involving national security or terrorism.
  • The court is conducting in-camera proceedings for reasons connected with public order or security of the State.18
  • The information published relates to a secret process, discovery or invention which is an issue in proceedings. For example, in patent objection matters.19

Fair criticism of judicial Actions

If a case has been finally heard and decided by the court, a person will be allowed to publish fair comments on the merits of that particular case.20 Comments about the judgment itself, and other comments about the merits of the case, are an exception to contempt of court.21 Since judgments are public documents, and the public acts of a Judge are subject to public scrutiny , no one can prohibit fair comments on either of them.22 However, the exact test for ‘fair comment’ is unclear and will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case. For example, misquoting the judge or making false statements about judges would not amount to ‘fair comment’. Additionally, such comments have to be made without any bad intentions, and without the motive to bring down the image of the judiciary or impair the administration of justice itself.23

Complaint against presiding officers of Subordinate Courts

If a person has made a complaint against a presiding officer of a Subordinate Court, to either the High Court or another Subordinate Court, such a complaint will not amount to contempt. However, such a complaint has to be made in good faith.24 For example, if a person files a complaint against a District Judge because of a legitimate grievance.

Truth

Saying or publishing the truth for the public good may be treated by the court as an exception to contempt.25 This is similar to the defence of truth in defamation, but the court has the option to decide whether or not to accept such a remark.

  1. Rachapudi Subba Rao v Advocate General, Andhra Pradesh, AIR 1981 SC 755; Read with Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, Sections 2(c) (ii) & (iii[]
  2. Section 3(1), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  3. Section 3(2), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  4. Section 3(3), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  5. Section 3, Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867.[][]
  6. Section 5, Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867.[]
  7. Proviso to Section 3(3), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  8. Naresh Shridhar Mirajkar v State of Maharashtra, AIR 1967 SC 1.[]
  9.  Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, Section 4.[]
  10. Borrie & Lowe, The Law of Contempt, LexisNexis Butterworths, 3rd Edn, p 270.[]
  11. Roach v. Garvan, (1742) 2 Atk 469.[]
  12. E.T. Sen v E. Narayanan, AIR 1969 Del 201, at 213.[]
  13. Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, Section 327(2[]
  14. Special Marriage Act, 1954, Section 33 for example.[]
  15. Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, Section 7(1)(a).[]
  16. Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, Section 327(3).[]
  17. Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, Section 7(1)(b).[]
  18. Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, Section 7(1)(c).[]
  19. Section 7(1)(d), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  20. Section 5, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  21. Samaraditya Pal, The Law of Contempt-Contempt of Courts and Legislatures, Chapter 5, Defenses, Punishments, Procedures, Limitation and Conferment of Rule Making Power (5th edn, 2012).[]
  22. Rama Dayal Markarha v. State of Madhya Pradesh, AIR 1978 SC 921, at 927.[]
  23. In re: Ajay Kumar Pandey, (1998) 7 SCC 248.[]
  24. Section 6, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  25. Section 13(b), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]

Who can file a complaint?

Anyone can file a complaint against a person who has made scandalizing remarks or otherwise stood in contempt against the judiciary.1  However, the contempt proceeding only happens between the court and the alleged offender. The complainant is only an informer, whose duty ends after informing the court. It is open to the court to determine whether or not to act on such information and thereby initiate contempt proceedings.2 

To read more on the procedure to file complaints, see our explainer on “How do you file a complaint for contempt?

  1. Section 15(1)(b), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  2. Muthu Karuppan, Commissioner of Police, Chennai v Parithi Ilamvazhuthi, (2011) 5 SCC 496.[]

Who does the law apply to?

The law is meant to safeguard the public’s faith in the judiciary and its authority.1  The law applies to the general public and prohibits the public from making such remarks against the judiciary. However, this restriction won’t be applicable if the remarks come under any of the defences given by the law. 

The law restricts the public from making any remarks against the Supreme Court, High Court, Subordinate Courts, and Tribunals established by law. However, the law of contempt does not protect Nyaya Panchayats or other village courts that have been established by law for the administration of justice.2 To read more on the power to initiate contempt proceedings, see our explainer on “Who are the authorities under the law?”

  1. Delhi Judicial Service Association, Tis Hazari Court v. the State of Gujarat, (1991) 4 SCC 406.[]
  2. Section 21, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]

Where can contempt of court happen?

Contempt of court can happen anywhere – inside court, outside court, on social media. etc. Further, contempt proceedings can be taken up by either the Supreme Court, High Court, or Tribunals. However, the procedure to initiate proceedings will differ based on the place where the alleged contempt happens.

When contempt happens before the court

In such a case, the court can take a person into custody and try their case on the very same day or at the earliest possible opportunity.1) The person will be informed of the charges against them, and will be given an opportunity to make their defence.2) They can also apply to have their case heard by any other Judge(s), who is not the Judge(s) in whose presence the alleged contempt was committed.3 The offender will be in custody till the charge against them is determined.4 

However, they can be released on bail, by executing a bail bond to guarantee their future attendance. To understand more on the bail, read our explainer on ‘Bail’

When contempt does not happen before the court

In such a case, the court can take up a case on its own or take up such a case which is referred to them by a legal officer.5).  Such a reference can be made by the:

  • Attorney General or Solicitor General, in case of the Supreme Court.6 
  • Advocate General, in case of High Courts.7 
  • The Law Officer specified by the Central Government, in case of the court of Judicial Commissioner.8 

If the contempt happens against a Subordinate Court

In case the contempt happens against a Subordinate Court, like a District Court, the matter has to be referred to the High Court, by: 

  • The Subordinate Court or 
  • The Advocate General of the State or
  • The Law Officer specified by the Central Government, in relation to a Union Territory.9

To understand how individual citizens can file a complaint for contempt of court, read our explainer on ‘Who can file a complaint’

  1.  Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, Section 14(1[]
  2. Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, Section 14(1[]
  3. Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, Section 14(2).[]
  4. Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, Section 14(4).[]
  5. Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, Section 15(1[]
  6. Section 15(1)(a), read with Explanation (a) of Section 15, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  7. Section 15(1)(a), read with Explanation (b) of Section 15, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  8. Section 15(1)(a), read with Explanation (c) of Section 15, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  9.   Section 15(2), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]

Who can you complain to regarding a grievance under the law?

Any person can file a complaint against a third party on an alleged offence of contempt of court. Such an application can be forwarded to either the Supreme Court, High Court, or to the court of Judicial Commissioner in cases of Union Territories, in the form of a petition. However, such an application can only be made with the written consent of: 

  • The Law Officer specified by the Central Government, in case of the court of Judicial Commissioner.3
  1. Section 15(1)(b), read with Explanation (a) of Section 15, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  2. Section 15(1)(b), read with Explanation (b) of Section 15, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  3. Section 15(1)(b), read with Explanation (c) of Section 15, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]

Who are the authorities under the law?

The Constitution of India, 1950 empowers the Supreme Court 1 and High Courts2 to have the powers to punish for contempt. This means that if a person is held for contempt against any Subordinate Court like the District Court, the respective High Courts of the State shall have the power to punish such a person.3 Here, the term ‘High Court’ will also include the court of the Judicial Commissioner in a Union Territory.4

Subordinate Courts do not have the power to punish for contempt of courts,5 and they have to rely on their respective High Courts to punish those held for contempt.3

Tribunals and contempt of court

Some tribunals have the power to punish for contempt. However, one would have to look at the law establishing the tribunal to see whether that particular tribunal has the power to punish for contempt and to know the procedure before the tribunal. For example, the Central Administrative Tribunal has the independent power to punish for contempt,6  as well as the Industrial Tribunal has such powers. 7

  1. Article 129, Constitution of India, 1950.[]
  2. Article 215, Constitution of India, 1950.[]
  3. Section 10, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[][]
  4.  Section 2(d), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  5. Delhi Judicial Service Association, Tis Hazari Court v. the State of Gujarat, (1991) 4 SCC 406.[]
  6. Section 17, Administrative Tribunals Act, 1985.[]
  7.  Industrial Disputes (Appellate Tribunal) Act, 1950.[]

What are the offences and punishments under this law ?

When one is held guilty of contempt, they have the option to apologize to the court and save themselves from any other punishments.1 However, such an apology should be genuine and not merely a ruse to save oneself from punishment.2 

Punishment for Contempt of Court

The punishment for civil and criminal contempt is the same. In situations where the court is not satisfied with the apology or if the person is unwilling to apologize, the court can punish the offender for contempt. The punishment is fine of up to Rs 2,000, or jail time up to 6 months, or with both. However, this limit is only applicable for the High Courts and not for the Supreme Courts. For the Supreme Court, this limit will only serve as a guide to the punishments that can be given and they can increase the fine amount.3

Moreover, the court has the option not to punish the offender if the court is of the opinion that the person has not substantially prejudiced the court.4

  1.  Proviso to Section 12(1), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  2. MC Mehta v. Union of India, (1987) 4 SCC 463.[]
  3. Zahira Habibullah Sheikh & Anr v. State of Gujarat & Ors, (2004) 4 SCC 158.[]
  4. Section 13(a), Contempt of Court Act, 1971.[]

What are the costs involved in exercising rights under this law?

For filing a petition for contempt, a certain amount of court fees have to be paid along with it. For contempt proceedings, the court fees are determined by the rules of the respective High Court or the Supreme Court. However, in the Supreme Court, the court fees do not have to be paid for the petition or any additional documents filed in the proceedings.1 Take the help of a lawyer to understand the respective court fees charged by the High Court of the state.

  1. Rule 4(d), Rules To Regulate Proceedings For Contempt Of Supreme Court, 1975.[]

How do you file a complaint for contempt?

The procedure to file a contempt petition depends upon the rules of the respective High Courts and the Supreme Courts. According to the rules of the Supreme Court, a contempt petition should contain:

  • The name, description and place of residence of the complainant(s) and of the persons charged (with the alleged contempt).1
  • Nature of the contempt alleged, and facts, including the date or dates of commission of the alleged contempt.2
  • If a petition has previously been made on the same facts, the complainant has to give the details of the petition previously made and also indicate the result of the case.3

The petition has to be supported by an affidavit and any document (s) in possession of the complainant. The document should be either the original or a true copy.4 To understand who to file a complaint to, read the explainer on “Who can you complain to regarding a grievance under the law?” 

  1. Rule 4(a)ii), Rules To Regulate Proceedings For Contempt Of Supreme Court, 1975.[]
  2. Rule 4(a)(ii), Rules To Regulate Proceedings For Contempt Of Supreme Court, 1975.[]
  3. Rule 4(a)(iii), Rules To Regulate Proceedings For Contempt Of Supreme Court, 1975.[]
  4. Rules 4 (b) & (c), Rules To Regulate Proceedings For Contempt Of Supreme Court, 1975.[]