Now that I have got you into reading my article by providing a bizarre title, this article is very simple in its approach. It deals with the issue of ‘Contempt of Court’. Due to the recent Prashant Bhushan Contempt of Court case, the legal literature is flooding with Contempt of Court articles. This is another addition to them. However, unlike them, the structure of the article is gradual and self-explanatory. The points (exclusive of the introduction and conclusion) discussed in this article are-

  1. History of Contempt of Courts in India.
  2. Definition of Contempt of Courts in India.
  3. A brief analysis of the iconic cases, with a special analysis of the Prashant Bhushan case.

Now that we have understood the contents of the article, let us move on to the introduction.


‘Disobedience of the Courts of Law’

This is a one-line, simple phrase to explain the concept of Contempt of Court. Let us be honest with ourselves. We have often heard people saying, ‘Don’t mess with the Judge, or she may punish you for Contempt of Court’. Even in the television programmes, the Judges are portrayed in such a manner that they are considered to possess absolute authority and pass any order, in case they feel that contempt of their Court has materialized. The reality is that no Judge has the power to decide, on her own, a Contempt matter which has happened in her Court. Why? The answer is-

‘Nemo debet esse judex in propria causa’

This is a famous Latin maxim, to be interpreted as ‘No one can be a Judge in her own cause’. Simple enough to understand, right? So, the next time if someone says that the Judge will punish you for Contempt, tell her that the Judge only has the power to refer the case to another Court (Judge) for deciding on the matter. Being a very important power, the existence of which is mandatory for maintaining the dignity of the State (Courts) as well as the Constitution, it is necessary to exercise the same with utmost diligence and judiciousness. Even at the slightest of carelessness, the Court may derogate its reputation further by punishing an innocent. Now that we have a brief idea regarding the concept and the way to adjudicate the proceedings, let’s have a look at a brief and chronological history of the power of Contempt of Courts in India.


▪ 1726- King of England issued a Charter which provided for the establishment of a corporation in every Presidency Town, introducing English Laws in the country. Mayor’s Courts were established in each Presidency Town and made the Courts of Record.

▪ 1774- Mayor’s Court at Calcutta was replaced by the Supreme Court at the Judicature of Fort William, by the Regulating Act of 1773.

▪ 1800- Mayor’s Courts of Bombay and Madras were superseded by the Recorder’s Courts, which were replaced by the Supreme Courts of the concerned Provinces under the Government of India Act.

▪ 1801- Supreme Court of Madras came into existence, after the Charter of 1800.

▪ 1824- Supreme Court of Bombay came into existence after the Charter of 1823.

▪ 1861- Supreme Courts of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were succeeded by the High Courts of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, under the Indian High Courts Act, 1861.

▪ 1866- High Court of Allahabad  was established as a Court of Record, with power to punish for contempt.

▪ 1867- Sir Barnes Peacock, first Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, in re Abdool and Mahtab[2] laid down the rule that all the Courts of Record have the power to punish for contempt summarily.

▪ 1879- Division Bench of Calcutta High Court, in Martin v/s. Lawrence[3] observed that the jurisdiction of the High Court to punish for contempt was inherited from the earlier Supreme Court and the earlier Supreme Court had inherited the same from the Charter of the Crown, that conferred it with the powers similar to the Court of King’s Bench and High Court of Chancery in Great Britain.

▪ 1914- In Legal Remambrancer v/s. Matilal Ghose and Ors.[4], Calcutta High Court observed that the power to punish for contempt is unlimited and thus, should be exercised carefully, as the subject is protected by no right of general appeal.

▪ 1926- The Contempt of Courts Act was enacted. First legislation in India to deal with contempt. Section 2 specified about the existing power of the High Courts to punish for their contempt, as well as the contempt of their subordinate courts. Also, specified the upper limit of the punishment.

▪ 1927- A five-Judge Bench of the Lahore High Court in re Muslim Outlook[5], Lahore observed that the power to punish for contempt of Court is available to all the High Courts and not only the three Chartered High Courts in India.

▪ 1937- Contempt of Courts Act was amended to clarify that the power to punish for contempt is related not only to the subordinate courts, but all Courts.

▪ 1948- Pepsu High Court established by an ordinance. Section 33 of this Ordinance provided for the Court to be a Court of Record with the power to punish for contempt.

▪ 1952- The Contempt of Courts Act 1926 replaced by the Contempt of Courts Act 1952. The features of the new Act were-

  1. Inclusion of the Court of the Judicial Commissioner in the definition of High Courts.
  2. High Courts, including the Courts of Judicial Commissioner, were conferred with the jurisdiction to try any offences of contempt of themselves or any other subordinate Court.
  3. Chief Courts also conferred with the power to punish for contempt.
  4. Extent of punishment that can be given by the High Courts and Chief Courts mentioned.

▪ April 1, 1960- Bill introduced in Lok Sabha to amend and consolidate the law relating to contempt of court in India.

▪ 1961- Sanyal Committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. H.N. Sanyal, the then Additional Solicitor General of India, formed to look into the research for the contempt law in India.

▪ 1963- Committee submitted its report, outlining the extent of the powers of various Courts in case of contempt and also, specifically talked about ‘criminal contempt’ and the ‘procedure’ to be followed regarding the same.

▪ 1971- Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 came into force, repealing the previous Act. The main features of this Act were-

  1. Act defined civil and criminal contempt separately.
  2. Provided defences for contempt of Court.
  3. Provided for a period of limitation for instituting the contempt proceedings.

So, this was, in brief, the history of the law relating to Contempt of Courts in India. We may definitely infer that we have come a long way since 1774, from the inception of the Mayor’s Court (Calcutta High Court) in Calcutta to the enactment of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971. Let us now have a look at the definitions of Contempt of Courts provided in the Act of 1971.

Definitions of Contempt of Courts-

As mentioned earlier, there are two definitions given in the Contempt of Courts Act 1971. The very primitive idea of ‘disobedience’ of the Court is now merely civil contempt. Although we started out by saying that ‘disobedience’ is the simplest way to explain contempt, in reality, it is much more complicated than that. Disobedience is only related to civil contempt of Court. Civil contempt[6] may be defined as-

“Wilful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court.”

Quite self-explanatory. Thus, if someone says that she won’t abide by the order of any Court, it is disobedience of the Court, amounting to civil contempt. However, going for an appeal also means disobedience in some way. But, that is a privileged Right conferred to the citizens. However, in case of an appeal, if the higher court upholds the order of the lower Court and a person refuses to follow the order, then the person shall be liable for the Contempt of the higher Court upholding the order, although it had been originally issued by the lower Court.

Criminal Contempt[7] maybe defined as-

“Publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which-

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

 Again, quite a self-explanatory definition.


The defences for contempt of Courts are as follows-

  1. Mistake[8] While distributing such a matter related to a civil or criminal proceeding pending in the Court, which may interfere with the course of justice related to that proceeding, the person shall not be held liable if he was unaware of the proceeding pending in the Court.
  1. If the proceeding, related to which the matter has been published, is not pending in the Court.
  1. If, while publishing such a matter, the person had no reasonable ground to believe that it contained any of the aforesaid matter.[9]
  1. Fair and accurate reporting of a judicial proceeding is not contempt of Court.[10]
  • Fair criticism of any judicial act is not contempt of Court.[11]
  • If a person files a complaint against the Presiding Officer of a subordinate court in a higher court in good faith.[12]
  • When a person is making a fair and accurate report of a judicial proceeding sitting in chambers or in camera, he is not guilty of contempt[13], unless-
  1. The publication is contrary to any other provision for the time-being in force.
  2. The Court, by virtue of exercising its authority for public policy, expressly prohibits the publication of any matter related to the proceeding or the publication of any matter related to the proceeding in the particular form in which it has been published.
  3. The Court which sits in chambers or in-camera, for the security of the State, prohibits the publication of material related thereto.
  4. Publication relates to a secret process, invention, or discovery, which is a matter of issue in the proceeding.
  • Any other defence.

These are the defences, in brief, related to the Contempt of Court.

Important Cases for Contempt of Court in India-

  1. In re Arundhati Roy[14]– In this particular case, the Supreme Court had held that every such criticism which tends to undermine the dignity of the Court, can’t be included within the term fair criticism and also is not supported by the defence under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.
  • U.P Residential Employee Cooperative Society v/s. New Okhla Industrial Development Authority[15]– In this particular case, the Supreme Court had held that if a false affidavit has been filed before a Court with an intention to mislead the same, then it is going to attract the Sections for criminal contempt of Court.
  • Justice C.S. Karnan’s case[16]– This is a landmark case in the history of the contempt proceedings in India, as Justice C.S. Karnan was the first sitting Judge in India to be sentenced to a prison term (due to contempt proceedings against him). He had sentenced five Judges, including the then Chief Justice of India, Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar to a 5-year rigorous imprisonment term, while they were in office. The Supreme Court had considered this behaviour to be contemptuous and hence, sentenced him to six-month imprisonment in Calcutta Jail.
  • Mr. Prashant Bhushan’s case[17]– Indeed, this is the most interesting case that has been the talk of the time. The facts can be summarized as follows-
  1. Mr. Prashant Bhushan had posted two Tweets. In the first one, he had shared the photograph of our present C.J.I., Justice Sharad A. Bobde and had informed that the C.J.I. was riding the bike of a B.J.P. leader in Nagpur, while he had shut down the Supreme Court because of which the citizens were being denied their Right of Access to Justice.
  • In the second Tweet, Bhushan had said that the last four C.J.I.s will be remembered particularly to assess how the Judiciary had destroyed India through its judgements.

Now that we have understood the facts, we can now see that in the first Tweet, there was no intention to either defame or to interfere with the administration of justice. It was merely a viewpoint, substantiated with true facts, that the C.J.I. was enjoying at such a crucial time. Moreover, in the next Tweet, it must be said that the criticism may sound derogatory, but actually it wasn’t, as it was an opinion by Mr. Bhushan regarding the poor safeguarding of the democratic ideals by the last four C.J.I.s. Thus, it was a fair comment. The Supreme Court, although had egotistically instituted the proceedings, but, after examining the case thoroughly had understood where they had gone wrong. As a result, they played the safest card by charging him only one rupee as the fine.

In a recent development, Recently, Mr. Prashant Bhushan after submitting his Re 1 penalty, said publically that he will further apply for a review petition into his judgment before the supreme court, as he is not satisfied by the decision.


Contempt proceedings are very important and delicate in nature. The Courts (Judges) should be well aware of what is contemptuous and what is not. Because if they can punish someone for disobeying them, they themselves should be well aware with what is actually disobedience and what is freedom of speech. Unless that is understood, cases like Mr. Bhushan’s will keep on propping-up and the Court will have to keep on depositing coins in its piggy bank.

Featured Image Source: https://internationaljournalofresearch.com/2020/06/16/contempt-of-court/

[1] Karan Dinesh Singh Rawat, Know the History of Contempt of Court in India, available at: https://abclive.in/history-of-contempt-of-court-in-india/ (last visited on September 10, 2020).

[2] (1867) 8 WR Cr 32

[3](1879) ILR 4 Cal 655

[4] (1914) ILR 41 Cal 173

[5] A.I.R 1927 Lah. 610

[6] The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, s. 2(b).

[7] The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, s. 2(c).

[8] The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, s. 3(1).

[9] The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, s. 3(3).

[10] The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, s. 4.

[11] The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, s. 5.

[12] The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, s. 6.

[13] The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, s. 7.

[14] AIR 2002 SC 1375, 2002 (1) BLJR 811, 2002 CriLJ 1792, JT 2002 (2) SC 508, RLW 2002 (3) SC 398, 2001 (8) SCALE 316 a, (2002) 3 SCC 343, 2002 2 SCR 213, 2002 (1) UJ 491 SC

[15] 1990 AIR 1325, 1990 SCR (3) 64

[16] W.P. (C) 6278/2017, High Court of Delhi, New Delhi.

[17]Suo Motu Contempt Petition (CRL.) NO.1 OF 2020, Supreme Court of India.


Kinkini Chaudhuri · September 20, 2020 at 7:49 am

Fantastically written. Must say, that though the title is simple, but the way you have presented is commendable.

Puspita Pal · September 20, 2020 at 1:41 pm

I must say raunak.. You explained a simple topic in a fantastic way .. Keep it up ❣

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