What is Contempt of Court – All you Need to Know

Contempt of court, often referred to simply as "contempt", is the offense of being disobedient to or disrespectful toward a court of law and its officers in the form of behavior that opposes or defies the authority, justice and dignity of the court. A similar attitude towards a legislative body is termed contempt of Parliament or contempt of Congress.

All you need to know about Contempt of court

Contempt of court, often referred to simply as “contempt“, is the offense of being disobedient to or disrespectful toward a court of law and its officers in the form of behavior that opposes or defies the authority, justice and dignity of the court. A similar attitude towards a legislative body is termed contempt of Parliament or contempt of Congress.

There are broadly two categories of contempt: being disrespectful to legal authorities in the courtroom, or willfully failing to obey a court order. Contempt proceedings are especially used to enforce equitable remedies, such as injunctions. In some jurisdictions, the refusal to respond to subpoena, to testify, to fulfill the obligations of a juror, or to provide certain information can constitute contempt of the court.

When a court decides that an action constitutes contempt of court, it can issue an order that in the context of a court trial or hearing declares a person or organization to have disobeyed or been disrespectful of the court’s authority, called “found” or “held” in contempt. That is the judge’s strongest power to impose sanctions for acts that disrupt the court’s normal process. A finding of being in contempt of court may result from a failure to obey a lawful order of a court, showing disrespect for the judge, disruption of the proceedings through poor behavior, or publication of material or non-disclosure of material, which in doing so is deemed likely to jeopardize a fair trial.

A judge may impose sanctions such as a fine or jail for someone found guilty of contempt of court, which makes contempt of court a process crime. Judges in common law systems usually have more extensive power to declare someone in contempt than judges in civil law systems.  

Contempt of Court in India

In India, the offence of contempt of court is committed when a person either disobeys a court order (civil contempt), or when a person says or does anything that scandalizes, prejudices, or interferes with judicial proceedings and the administration of justice (criminal contempt).

Contempt of court can be punished with imprisonment or a fine, or both.

According to the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, iicontempt of court can either be civil contempt or criminal contempt.

Civil contempt means wilful disobedience of any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court, or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court.

Criminal contempt, on the other hand, is attracted by the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, 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.

In 2006, the government brought in an amendment, which now provides “truth” as defence provided it is bona fide and in public interest.

Subsection 1 of Section 15 (Cognizance of criminal contempt in other cases) of The Contempt of

Courts Act, 1971 reads: “In the case of a criminal contempt, other than a contempt referred to in

Section 14 (“Procedure where contempt is in the face of the Supreme Court or a High Court”), the Supreme Court or the High Court may take action on its own motion or on a motion made by (a) the Advocate-General, or (b) any other person, with the consent in writing of the AdvocateGeneral…”.

In August, A-G Venugopal turned down a request by one Anuj Saxena for his consent to initiate criminal contempt of court proceedings against actor Swara Bhasker for allegedly making “derogatory and scandalous” statements against the Supreme Court.

Punishment for Contempt of court 

According to the Act, contempt of court may be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to two thousand rupees, or with both, provided that the accused may be discharged or the punishment awarded may be remitted on apology being made to the satisfaction of the court.

The Supreme Court recently found activist-advocate Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt of court for two of his tweets, and imposed a token fine of Re 1 on him after Bhushan refused to apologise.

The concept of contempt come into being

The concept of contempt of court is several centuries old. In England, it is a common law principle that seeks to protect the judicial power of the king, initially exercised by himself, and later by a panel of judges who acted in his name. Violation of the judges’ orders was considered an affront to the king himself. Over time, any kind of disobedience to judges, or obstruction of the implementation of their directives, or comments and actions that showed disrespect towards them came to be punishable.

The statutory basis for contempt of court

There were pre-Independence laws of contempt in India. Besides the early High Courts, the courts of some princely states also had such laws. When the Constitution was adopted, contempt of court was made one of the restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. Separately, Article 129 of the Constitution conferred on the Supreme Court the power to punish contempt of itself. Article 215 conferred a corresponding power on the High Courts. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, gives statutory backing to the idea.

Kinds of contempt of court

The law codifying contempt classifies it as civil and criminal. Civil contempt is fairly simple. It is committed when someone wilfully disobeys a court order, or wilfully breaches an undertaking given to court. Criminal contempt is more complex. It consists of three forms: (a) words, written or spoken, signs and actions that “scandalise” or “tend to scandalise” or “lower” or “tends to lower” the authority of any court (b) prejudices or interferes with any judicial proceeding and (c) interferes with or obstructs the administration of justice.

Making allegations against the judiciary or individual judges, attributing motives to judgments and judicial functioning and any scurrilous attack on the conduct of judges are normally considered matters that scandalise the judiciary. The rationale for this provision is that courts must be protected from tendentious attacks that lower its authority, defame its public image and make the public lose faith in its impartiality.

The punishment for contempt of court is simple imprisonment for a term up to six months and/or a fine of up to ₹. 2,000.

What is not contempt of court?

Fair and accurate reporting of judicial proceedings will not amount to contempt of court. Nor is any fair criticism on the merits of a judicial order after a case is heard and disposed of.

Is truth a defence against a contempt charge?

For many years, truth was seldom considered a defence against a charge of contempt. There was an impression that the judiciary tended to hide any misconduct among its individual members in the name of protecting the image of the institution. The Act was amended in 2006 to introduce truth as a valid defence, if it was in public interest and was invoked in a bona fide manner.


In 1969, a challenge to the constitutional validity of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971 was dismissed by the Supreme Court of India, which found the law to be substantively valid. In 2020, lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan, along with journalist and politician Arun Shourie, and publisher N.Ram, filed a petition challenging the constitutional validity of the Contempt of Courts Act again.

Courts’ powers to punish for criminal contempt have been repeatedly criticized by former judges and lawyers as having a chilling effect on freedom of speech, being too broad and vague in its definition and lending itself to misuse to shield the judiciary from criticism. Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde has argued that the offence of “scandalizing the court” is “incapable of precise definition,” and that it derives from English law, where it has since been abolished.

In 2011, retired Supreme Court judge and former Press Council of India Chairman, Markandeya Katju, called for amendments to the Contempt of Courts Act 1971 in order to allow the media to report better on law and judiciary-related matters.

In March 2018, the Law Commission of India was tasked by the Government of India with reexamining Section 2 of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, which defines the offence of contempt. The Commission was asked to examine a proposal that suggested that contempt of court should be limited to cases of civil contempt, i.e. disobedience of court orders, and should not include the offence of ‘scandalising the court’, i.e. criminal contempt. The Commission recommended the retention of the offence of ‘criminal contempt’ in India, noting that courts in India continue to use it widely, unlike other countries in which offences such as ‘scandalising the court’ have fallen into disuse.

The Commission also noted that the power of courts to penalise contempt was inherent, and would continue to exist even if the Act was amended or deleted altogether.

Relevant Cases  

  • In 1978, two newspaper editors from the Times of India and the Indian Express were charged with contempt following the publication of articles that contained criticisms of the Supreme Court’s decision in ADM Jabalpur v Shivkant Shukla, a case in which the Supreme Court refused to protect the right to habeas corpus during the Emergency. The case was ultimately dropped after Chief Justice M.H. Beg, who had initiated the proceedings, was not supported by the two other judges on the bench in his opinion that contempt had been committed.
  • In 1981, V. K. Krishna Iyer, a former Supreme Court judge, delivered a public speech in which he criticised the functioning of the judiciary in India. The Kerala High Court tried him for criminal contempt after receiving a complaint from a person who heard the speech, but found him not guilty of the charges.
  • In 1997, Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray was convicted of contempt of court by the Bombay High Court, after he accused a judge of corruption in a public speech. The Supreme Court set aside his conviction on appeal, in 2004.
  • In 2010, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, M. V. Jayarajan was convicted of contempt of court after he criticized a Kerala High Court decision banning meetings in certain public places. The Kerala High Court sentenced him to six months’ imprisonment, which was reduced to four months on appeal to the Supreme Court.
  • In 2001, the Delhi High Court issued a notice to editor and journalist Madhu Trehan as well as four other people, in connection with an article published in the (now defunct) magazine, Wah India. The article in question had asked senior advocates in Delhi to anonymously rate Delhi High Court judges on various grounds, including their perceived honesty. The Delhi High Court found them to be guilty of contempt, but accepted an apology and did not penalise the offence.
  • In 2011, BM Patel was convicted of contempt of court by the Gujarat High Court and sentenced to imprisonment for three months as well as a fine of ₹2000. Patel was convicted in relation to comments he made on the judiciary in connection with an ongoing litigation concerning property. The Gujarat High Court stated that this was only the second time that a conviction had been secured under the Contempt of Courts Act 1971.
  • In 2013, Bollywood actor Rajpal Yadav and his wife, Radha Yadav, were both convicted of contempt of court and jailed for ten days, after failing to appear before the Delhi High Court during a suit against them for recovery of debts.
  • In 2020, lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan was convicted of contempt of court. He had posted a press photograph of the current Chief Justice of India, Sharad Bobde, seated on a motorcycle without a face mask during the Covid-19 pandemic in India, and criticized the judiciary for their selective focus in hearing cases during the lockdown. He declined an offer from the Supreme Court to apologise for these comments.  A challenge to the constitutionality of the Contempt of Courts Act, filed by Bhushan and others, is still pending.


This Act has been promulgated by Parliament of India in the Year 1971 with an aim to define as to what amounts to Contempt of Court. The statute aims to put a limit the powers of certain judicial courts in punishing contemners under contempts of courts and to regulate the procedure in relation to Petitions on Contempt of Court. The Statute is divided into 24 Sections which include Fair criticism of judicial act not contempt, Power of High Court to punish contempts of subordinate courts, Procedure after cognizance and Hearing of cases of criminal contempt to be by Benches.

Author: Riya

i En.m. Wikipedia. Org ii From www.Indianexpress.com iii From thehindu. Com

iv Thewire. in v www.valkilno1.com vi Blog.ipleaders. in

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