Contempt Of Court: An Analysis

If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.

  • Louis D Brandeis



Contempt of court is a matter which is concerning the fair administration of justice and the main aim is to punish  whosoever hurts the dignity and authority of courts. According to [1]Lord Diplock, he defines Contempt of court in a following way:-

Although criminal contempt of court may take a variety of forms they all share a common characteristic: they involve an interference with the due administration of justice, either in a particular case or more generally as a continuing process. [2]It is justice itself that is flouted by Contempt of court, not the individual court or judge who is attempting to administer it.

According to [3]Black’s Law Dictionary, it is the act of demeaning the court, preventing justice administration, or disobeying a sentence of the court. It is criminal and can lead to fines or imprisonment.

In case of India , under Section 2(a) of the Contempt of Court Act of 1971 defines contempt of court as civil contempt or criminal contempt, it is generally felt that the existing law relating to contempt of court is somewhat uncertain, undefined and unsatisfactory.



The term contempt of court which is also know as Contemptus curiae has been in use since centuries and it is old as the law is. The law relating to contempt of court has developed over the centuries as the medium whereby the courts may punish the act of humiliating or lowering the court’s dignity. In ancient times king was regarded as the fountain of justice and he used to hear the cases himself. His power was absolute and the subjects (common people) obey him with due respect. If anyone condemn or criticise him then he will be punished. With time, due to the increase in number of cases the burden on the king was shifted to a separate body created by the king and i.e. Judges.

In the twelfth century, the idea of contempt of the king was considered as an offence and it was laid down in the laws during that time.

This concept in India has its origin from British Administration in India. This originated from an undelivered judgement of J Wilmot in 1765, where all the judges said the power of  contempt of court was necessary to maintain the dignity of judges and vindicate their authority. In one of the case[4] ( Surendranath Banerjee’s case), privy council observed that “ …a high court derives its power to punish for contempt from its own existence or creations. It is not a power, conferred upon it by law”. In 1926, the Contempt of court Act was passed to bring transparency in the concept of contempt of court and to punish for the contempt of subordinate courts.”

But this Act did not contain any provisions regarding the contempt of courts lower to Cheif Courts and Judicial Commissioner’s court. Therefore it was replaced by Contempt of Court Act, 1952.But the Act of 1952 was again replaced by Contempt of Court Act, 1971 on the recommendations of the committee headed by [5]H. N Sanyal. This was done because of the dissatisfactory, uncertain and undefined nature of Contempt of Court Act, 1952.

Contempt of Court Act, 1971 was passed in a very pragmatic way and it actually beautified the idea of justice. This act mentioned all the provisions to punish whomsoever hinder the path of the judiciary


The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 is divides the expression ‘contempt of court’ into two different categories:

  1. Civil Contempt
  2. Criminal Contempt

Civil Contempt

Under[6] Section 2(b) of the The Contempt of Court Act, 1971 ‘ civil contempt’ is defined to mean wilful disobedience to any judgement, decree, order, direction or any other process of court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to the court.

Criminal Contempt

[7]Section 2(c) of The Contempt of Courts Act,1971 defines Criminal contempt. Criminal contempt means the 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-

  1. Scandalizes or tends to scandalize, of lowers or tends to lower the authority of any court, or
  2. Prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding or
  3. Interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct , the administration of justice in any other manner.

The difference between the two types of  the above cases was clearly held by the Allahabad Court in Vijay [8]Pratap Singh V. Ajit Prasad. “It was held that a distinction between a civil contempt and criminal contempt seems to be that , in a civil contempt the purpose is to force the contemnor to do something for the benefits of the other party, while in criminal contempt the proceeding is by way of punishment for a wrong not so much to a party or individual but to the public at large by interfering with the normal process of law degrading the majesty of the court. However, if a civil contempt is enforced by fine or imprisonment of the contemnor for non performance of his obligation imposed by a court, it turns out into a criminal contempt and becomes a criminal matter at the end. Such contempt, being neither purely civil nor purely criminal in nature, is sometimes called sui generis. It is submitted that the differentiating line between civil and criminal contempt is sometimes very thin and might often considered being same. Where the contempt consists in mere failure to comply with or carry on an order of a court made for the benefit of a private party, it is plainly civil contempt. If, however, the contemnor adds defiance of the court to disobedience of the order and conducts himself in a manner which amounts to abstraction or interference with the courts of justice, the contempt committed by him is of a mixed character, partaking of between him and his opponent the nature of a civil contempt.”


  1. [9]Paras Saklecha V. Shri Justice A.M Khanwilkar

In this case a Contempt petition was filed against Chief Justice of Madhya Pradesh High Court. A petitioner in PIL had filed the application alleging that certain words made by the Chief Justice A.M Khanwilkar while hearing the writ petition amounts to contempt. The Division bench who heard the application came to the conclusion that the act of CJ cannot be termed as Contempt of court.

  1. [10]V Jayarajan V. High Court of Kerala & Anr.

In this case apex court stated that “Judges expect, nay invite, an informed and genuine discussion or criticism of judgments, but to incite a relatively  illiterate audiences against the Judiciary is not to be ignored. In this case Mr Jayarajan used two Malayalam words like ‘shumbhanmar’( idiots. Fool) and ‘pulluvila’ ( of little value) against the Judges of High Court. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentences him for four weeks.

  1. [11]Re: KK Mishra case

In this case, the lawyer abused and made allegations of bribery and corruption against Reference Officer (  civil judge)  and threatened him of the consequences when he would come out the court hours.

  1. [12] GN Saibaba V. State of Maharashtra

In this case , the famous author Arundhati Roy in her book titles “ The Outlook” criticized of the non-granting of bail to the Professor. Justice Arun. B Choudhari, dismissed the bail application and also directed registration of Criminal Contempt against the author.

  1. [13]Attorney General v. Times Newspapers Ltd

House of Lords in has rightly enumerated threefold purposes of the law of contempt: (i) to enable the parties to litigation and the witnesses to come before the Court without outside interference; (ii) to enable the Courts to try cases without such interference; and (iii) to ensure that authority and administration of law are maintained.

  1. [14]Ram Surat Singh v. Shiv Kumar Pandey

The Court held that the object of the law of contempt is not to provide a cloak for judicial authorities to cover up their inefficiency and corruption, or to stifle criticism made in good faith against such officers. Administration of justice cannot be effective unless respect for it is fostered and maintained.

  1. [15]M.S. Namboodripad v. T.N. Nambiar

The appeal was against the conviction for contempt of court. The conviction was based on certain utterances of the appellant, when he was Chief Minister, at a press conference. Mr. Chief Justice Hidayatullah with whom G.K. Mitter and A.N. Ray, JJ. Agreed speaking for the Supreme Court explained the scope of law relating to contempt and observed:

“The law of contempt stems from the right of the courts to punish by imprisonment or fine to persons guilty of words or acts which either obstruct or tend to obstruct the administration of justice. This right is exercised in India by all courts when contempt is committed in facie curiae and by the superior courts on their own behalf or on behalf of courts subordinate to them even if committed outside the courts. Formerly, it was regarded as inherent in the powers of a Court of Record and now by the Constitution of India… There are many kinds of contempt’s. The chief forms of contempt are insult to judges, attacks or fair comment on pending proceedings with a tendency to prejudice fair trial obstruction to officers of the courts, witnesses or the parties along with the process of the court, breach of duty by officer connected with the Court and scandalising the Judges or the courts. The last form occurs, generally speaking, when the conduct of a person tends to bring the authority and administration of laws into disrespect or disregard. This conduct included all acts which bring the Courts into disrepute or disrespect, or which offend its dignity, affront its majesty or challenge its authority.”

Mr Chief Justice Hidayatullah further observed:

“The law punishes not only acts which do in fact interfere with 33 AIR 1970 SC 2015. 188 the courts and administration of justice but also those which have that tendency, that is to say likely to produce a particular result.”

The Supreme Court after citing several works and teaching of Marx and Engels upheld the sentence of contempt of court. It was that judging from the angle of the courts and administration of justice, there was not assemblage of doubt that the appellant was guilty of the contempt of court.

  1. [16]re Freston

It was stated that all contempt’s are not the same, they are of different kinds. Some contempt’s are merely theoretical but others are wilful, such as disobedience to the injunction or to orders, delivery of documents. In this case there is no privilege from arrest. In this case attachment was granted for something more than a mere theoretical contempt and thereafter it was something more than merely civil process, there was therefore, no privilege.

  1. [17]Legal Remembrancer v. Motilal Ghose

The Calcutta High Court in has explained the difference between civil contempt and criminal contempt. The distinction between civil and criminal contempt is of fundamental character. While criminal contempt offends the public and consists of conduct that offends the majesty of law and undermines the dignity of the Court, civil contempt consists in failure to obey the order, decree, direction, judgment, writ or process issued by courts for the benefit of the opposing party.

  1. [18]Sarla Devi Bharat Kumar Rungta v. Bharat Kumar Shiv Prasad Rungta

It was held that civil contempt was made out and the wife cannot be forced to take recourse to execution proceedings, if she is forced to recover the amount by taking out execution proceedings, the recovery of the amount may take years together and also the marriage petition to proceed further. In case the court directs to take execution proceedings, it shall result into great hardship and the administration


“The offence consists in interfering with the administration of law; in impending and perverting the course of justice…It is not the dignity of the court which is offended, it is the fundamental supremacy of the law which is challenged “-[19]Lord Clyde.

The main purpose behind the Contempt Act is to judge fairly without any disturbances and through this it creates a trust on the citizens. This power given to judiciary should be used wisely and promptly. This Act raises the dignity of the judiciary and protect it from any external pressure or disturbances. The Contempt of Court Act, 1971 is imperative with reference to the concept of delivering of justice. Because of this Act, the justice is delivered very quick and fast. But still there are many shortcomings in many of the sections of this Act. In this article I will be suggesting a few ways to overcome the shortcomings. Some of them are:

  • The court should have a mind to accept fair criticism. This will help the court to improve their way of judgements and speedy trial.
  • The Judiciary should have a clear image about the distinction of Contempt of court and Contempt of Judge.
  • The Act should be used at the last resort when the Judge have a very reasonable basis that the words or acts results to Contempt.
  • The element of Mens rea should be taken into consideration in Contempt of court Act.
  • If the Judge feels that the act lowers the dignity of court , then it can also be given for a second opinion to some committee or any other judicial opinion can be taken into consideration
  • Contempt of Court should be applied to all citizens equally without any discrimination between common individual and public figures.
  • A proper criteria should be setup to check whether the act comes within the purview of Contempt of Court.

I would like to conclude this article by raising a question to the Judiciary that how far is the Contempt of Court Act useful and does it really helps in speedy trial and efficient delivery of justice? Also one of the question which is still not unanswered is how far the judiciary have succeeded in the task of balancing the freedom of speech and expression which is given in the Constitution of India and the upholding the integrity and dignity of court.


“I will reward the media if they come out with the truth” “I personally believe that truth should be a defence in a contempt case”- Justice Khare

[1] Mriganka Shekhar Dutta & Amba Uttara Kak, CONTEMPT OF COURT: FINDING THE LIMIT, NUJS LAW REVIEW 56, (2009)

[2] AG v. Leveller Magazine Ltd. [1979] AC 440, p. 449s


[4] ILR 10 Cal 109

[5] In 1962 a Committee headed by H.N. Sanyal, the then Solicitor General of India, was appointed by the Government of India to review and suggest modifications in the law of contempt of court. The Committee in its report stated the summary jurisdiction to punish for contempt of court

[6] The Contempt of Court Act, 1971,Universal Law Publication

[7] The Contempt of Court Act, 1971,Universal Law Publication

[8] AIR 1966 All. 305.


[10] Case (Crl.).No. 2 of 2010

[11]Contempt Application  (Criminal) No. – 20 of 2011


[13] 1974 AC 273

[14] AIR 1971 All. 170

[15] AIR 1970 SC 2015

[16] (1883) II Q.B.D. 545

[17] ILR 41 Cal. 173.

[18] 1988 Cr. L.J. 558 (Bom.).

[19] Johnson  V. Grant (1923) SC at 790.

Authored by: Pooja Vikram, Campus Ambassador at Legal Desire


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