Contempt of court: A blessing in the hands of judges?

“Contempt of court” often referred to simply as contempt, is the offence of disobedient and disrespectful action towards a court of law and its officers in the form of behaviour that opposes or defies the authority, justice and dignity of the court.

Meaning and Nature of Contempt of Court

The Contempt of Court Act, 1971 does not define “contempt of court” but only renders the classification or categories of it. In the case of State of Bihar v. Shree Kuber Nand Kishore Singhit was held that, “It is very difficult to define the ‘contempt of court. What would offend the dignity of the court and lower the court’s prestige is a matter for the court to determine and it cannot be confined within the four walls of any definition”. As per Corpus Juris Secundum, ‘contempt of court’ is disobedience towards the court by acting in opposition to the authority, justice and dignity thereof.

According to section 2(a) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 ‘contempt of court’ means civil contempt or criminal contempt. The definition contained in Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 is not exhaustive. It is better to leave it to the court to deal with each case as it comes and a right to appeal in all cases of contempt will cure whatever defect there may be in the application of the law.

Types of Contempt

There are two types of contempt according to the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971:-

Civil Contempt

The contempts that are civil in nature are taken as acts and omissions in procedure involving a private injury by the disobedience of the judgment, order or other process of the court. According to the Section 2(b) of the contempt of court act, 1971 ‘civil contempt’ means wilful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of undertaking given to a court. Civil contempt may be taken as a failure to obey the order of the court issued for the benefit of the opposite party. In the case of Vidya sagar v.Third Additional District Judge, Dehradun it was stated that, the purpose of the proceeding of the civil contempt is not only to punish the offender but also to exercise the enforcement and obedience to the order of the court. Civil contempt serves dual purpose-

  • Vindication of the public interest by punishment of contemptuous conduct, and
  • Coercion to the contempt by the offender so as to seek the requirement of the court from the offender.

Criminal Contempt

The definition of criminal contempt has been provided in section 2(c) of the Contempt of Court Act (COC), 1971. It provides that “Criminal contempt” means the publication whether by words, spoken or written or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise of any matter of doing any act whatsoever which-

  • scandalizes or tends to scandalise or lowers or tend to lower the authority of court; or
  • prejudices or interferes  or tends to interfere with due course of judicial proceeding; or
  • interferes or tend to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.

The definition of criminal contempt is wide enough to include any act of a person which would tend to interfere with the administration of justice which would lower the authority of the court.

In Arundhati Roy case, the Supreme Court was of the opinion that the “defence allegations contained in reply filed to contempt notice, cannot be contempt in view of Section 499 of IPC” is not tenable. The law of defamation under the penal law cannot be equated with the law of contempt of court. InRe P.C. Sen case it was held that the rule of strict liability is to be applied in the case of criminal contempt cases by the court.


The person, guilty for the offence of contempt of court shall be punished either with six months imprisonment, or two thousand imprisonment , or both under section 12 of the Contempt of Courts  Act,1971.

Limitation Period for filing the Complaint

The limitation period for actions of contempt has been discussed under Section 20 of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971. A period of one year from the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed will be considered as a limitation period.

Recent Cases on Contempt of Court

The pandemic year of 2020 created a havoc in the Supreme Court when by the tweets of two prominent personalities the proceedings of the court and the viewpoint of the helping hands of the justice system, i.e. the of the judges were challenged and called in question creating a blot on the reputation of the higher authority of justice in front of the society.

  • First case was of the renowned advocate and activist Prashant Bhushan. 

Advocate Mr. Prashant Bhushan  was held guilty of the contempt of court on August 14, 2020 for two tweets against current Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and four former  CJIs which the Supreme court found were based on distorted facts and amounted to scurrilous and malicious attack on the apex court and destabilizing the foundation of the judiciary was sentenced with the token fine of Re.1 and in default of payment of fine by September 15, he has to undergo imprisonment for a period of 3 months and face a practice ban of 3 years, by a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra. Before pronouncing the sentence the court had given Bhushan three chances to tender unconditional apology, but Bhushan said, any unconditional apology would amount to “contempt of his conscience”. He said and stood by his tweets and said if it is construed as contempt and proceeding continued, it would constitute an unreasonable restriction on Art 19 i.e freedom of speech and expression. Here comes the question of whether this 1 rupee fine in contempt of the highest body of justice is relevant?

The answer to the question is that this implementation of fine is like playing with its own power and becoming a joke in front of the public and also disrespecting Article 14 of the constitution. Senior journalist N Ram said, though the contempt judgment against Mr. Bhushan was ”fierce” in itself  and contained strong language, the punishment (Rs. 1) was certainly incongruous. There was no real substantiation for this kind of punishment. Further the advocate of Mr. Bhushan files a review  petition against the verdict.

  • Second incident of attack on the apex justice body is related to the tweet of the comedian Kunal Kamra.

Attorney General KK Venugopal gave consent for contempt proceeding on a request by Prayagraj based Advocate Anuj Garg, against comedian Kunal Kamra for his 18 November tweet saying it was ‘grossly vulgar and obnoxious ‘ and tendered to lower the authority of the Supreme Court.

The consent of either the Attorney General or the Solicitor General is necessary under section 15 of the Contempt of Courts Act,1971 for contempt proceeding against a person.

The petition said that Mr. Kamra started tweeting on 14 November, when the Supreme court was hearing appeal of Republic TV news channel  reporter Arnab Goswami against the Bombay High Court’s order rejecting the plea seeking interim bail in an abetment to suicide case filled in 2018 against him. Here Kamra’s outburst, could be argued which ,opened the sluice gates of a reservoir of disappointment.


Fair and reasonable justice is the need of the hour and it is possible only if we trust the guarantors of it, i.e. Judiciary. The Indian constitution makes judiciary the protector and guardian of the rights of the persons and also empowers the judiciary to protect its dignity and the due administration of justice by the provision inculcated in the Article 129 of the constitution making it a court of record too.


This article is authored by Shefali Singh, a graduate of Lucknow University.

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