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    BlogJudiciaryContempt of Court Act: A Detailed Study - By Akarsh Tripathi

    Contempt of Court Act: A Detailed Study – By Akarsh Tripathi

    The Blog is written by Akarsh Tripathi of Symbiosis Law School Noida and provides a holistic understanding of the subject of Contempt of Court.


    Contempt of court is an offense in the eyes of law, of being disobedient to or disrespectful towards a court of law and its officers. In the form of behavior that opposes or defies the authority, justice, and dignity of the court. Contempt constitutes anything that curtails or impairs the freedom of limits of the judicial proceedings which must of necessity result in hampering the administration of Law and in interfering with the due course of justice. In case a person is found guilty of Contempt of Court, the court has the right to impose sanctions and punish the person. This shall be discussed in the explanation of Section 12 of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971.


    In India, the origin of the concept of “Contempt of Court” can be traced from the English Law. In England, the Superior Courts used to exercise their power to punish those people who used to commit contempt by means of scandalizing the Court or the Judges, or who interfered in the administration of justice. 

    The Contempt of Courts Act 1926 was the first statute in this regard, passed in the Indian Law. This Statute defined the meaning of ‘contempt’ any many other terminologies. It also limited the powers of some courts in punishing the contemnor. This was the reason why The Contempt of Courts Act, 1926 was replaced by The Contempt of Courts Act, 1952 (35 of 1952).

    Even after this, there were several bills introduced in the Lok Sabha to amend the laws relating to Contempt of Court. One such bill was that of Sri Bibhuti Bhushan Das Gupta which was introduced in April. However, the government appears to realize that the law relating to Contempt of Courts was unsatisfactory, undefined, uncertain, and vague in some aspects. Thus, a Special Committee is known as “Sanyal Committee” was established on 29th July 1961, for the purpose of scrutinizing this subject of law. The committee was chaired by late Shri H.N. Sanyal who was the then Additional Solicitor General. This report was submitted in the year 1963. 

    In the year 1968, the Joint Select Committee of the Parliament prepared a new modified and detailed Bill, whose recommendations were accepted by the Government. The Bill gave effect to the establishment and enforcement of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 which came into force on 24the December 1971. 


    1. The Contempt of Courts (Amendment) Act, 1976 (45 of 1976)
      • Section 15(1) (c) was incorporated- Cognizance of criminal contempt in other cases. 
    2. The Contempt of Courts (Amendment) Act, 2006 (6 of 2006)
      • Section 13 was inserted- Contempts not punishable in certain cases.
    3. The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019 (34 of 2019)
      • Provision omitted in Section 1- Short title and extent


    The objective behind the Law of Contempt of Court Act,1971 has been rightly itemized by the House of Lords in the case of Attorney General v. Times Newspapers Ltd

    The purpose behind the law of contempt is:-

    1. To enable the parties to litigation and the witnesses to come before the Court without outside interference; 
    2. To enable the Courts to try cases without such interference; and 
    3. To ensure that authority and administration of law are maintained.

    A civil society is founded on respect for the law. If every citizen chose to break the law, we would have no society at all, at least not a civil one. It is this respect for the law and of the law enforcing agencies that, somewhat paradoxically, ensures the freedoms recognized in the Constitution.” 

    In the Case of J. R. Parashar Vs. Prashant Bhushan  the following was stated:-

    Thus, it can be understood that the main purpose is to protect the administration of justice, the interests of the public, and to ensure a mechanism where there is no interference in the delivery of justice.

    Preamble (24th December, 1971)

    “An Act to define and limit the powers of certain courts in punishing contempt of courts and to regulate their procedure in relation thereto.”


    According to Halsbury “Any act is done or writing published which is calculated to bring a Court or Judge into disrepute or lower his authority or to interfere with the due course of justice or the Lawful process of the Court is contempt of Court.”

    Definitions (as per statute)

    There is no detailed explanation of “contempt of court” in the Act of 1971. However, the same has been defined using two other terminologies “civil contempt” and “criminal contempt”

    Section 2(a) states that “contempt of court” means civil contempt or criminal contempt. 

    According to Section 2(b) – “Civil Contempt” means willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ, or another process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court. 

    Here “wilful disobedience” an act or omission which is done voluntarily and intentionally and with the specific intent to do something the law forbids or with the specific intent to fail to do something the law requires to be done, that is to say with bad purpose either to disobey or to disregard the law.

    Also, the Court has held that in cases where an undertaking has been given to the court, it should not be breached willfully, ‘as it will open dangerous trends and defeat the very purpose of giving undertakings to court’. Thus, breach of an undertaking given to a court is a serious matter and will be treated seriously.

    According to Section 2(c) – “Criminal Contempt” has been defined as 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. Scandalises or tends to scandalize, or 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 Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 shall not be construed as an act implying that any kind of disobedience, breach or publication or any other activity which is punishable under the said Act cannot be punishable apart from this Act. [Section 9]


    In the case of Vijay Pratap Singh v. Ajit Prasad, the Allahabad High Court brought clarity to the difference between civil contempt and criminal contempt. 

    “The question for determination is whether the instant proceedings are in the nature of civil contempt or criminal contempt or quasi civil and quasi-criminal which may ultimately merge into a criminal contempt.” The distinction between civil and criminal contempt is critical because criminal contempt triggers additional constitutional safeguards.  Civil contempt must be proved by clear and convincing evidence.  In a criminal contempt proceeding, the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. Another major factor that determines whether contempt is criminal or civil is the purpose behind the ruling. In the case of civil contempt, the main objective or purpose behind such ruling is to make sure that people follow the orders of the court and respect the administration of justice. On the other hand, in case of criminal contempt, the purpose is to prevent the courts’ integrity and punish the contemnor for the acts, which scandalized and lowered the authority of the court. (Link)


    There are three Articles in the Constitution of India which are related to Contempt of Court. These are Article 129, Article 215, and Article 142(2).

    Note: – As per the Law Commission Report Summary: Review of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971; the courts (Supreme Court and High Court) derive their powers of contempt from the Constitution of India. The Act does not have any impact on the inherent constitutional powers of the superior courts to punish anyone for its contempt. These powers will continue to remain independent of the 1971 Act.

    Article 129:- The Supreme Court is a ‘court of record’ and has the power to punish for contempt of itself. The phrase ‘court of record’ means that the proceedings of a Supreme Court are recorded and shall be treated as evidence of the fact. 

    Article 142(2):- The Supreme Court may enforce any decree or order in the interest of justice and no provision of any law related to this can limit or regulate the exercise of jurisdiction of the Courts. 

    Article 215:- Every High Court is a ‘court of record’ and has the power to punish for contempt of itself. The phrase ‘court of record’ means that the proceedings of any High Court are recorded and shall be treated as evidence of the fact.

    Related Case Laws:- 

    1. Bar Association vs. Union of India & Anr. :- The SC read Article 129 along with Article 142(2) and Article 215 of the Indian Constitution and remarked that no provision under any law passed by the Parliament can take away the inherent powers of the superior courts to punish for the contempt or for that matter pass any order or decree in the interest of justice. 
    2. Sudhakar Prasad vs. Govt. of A.P. & Ors. : – The SC once again laid emphasis on the powers of contempt being inherent. It also said that the provisions of Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 are only in addition to Article 219 and Article 215 of the Indian Constitution. 

    An important point worth highlighting in this judgment is that  SC held that the High Court cannot create or order a judgment having a type of punishment other than the one recognized by Section 12 of The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

    Section 22 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971:- 

    This Section expressly mentions what has been highlighted and concluded by the judgements of SC and HC’s: The provisions of this Act are mere addition to and not in derogation (or exception) to any provisions of any other Law related to Contempt of Courts, which means not even Article 129, Article 142(2) and Article 215 of the Constitution of India. 


    The elements generally needed to establish contempt are: (Link)

    • The making of a valid court order,
    • Knowledge of the order by the respondent,
    • The ability of the respondent to render compliance, and
    • Willful disobedience of the order.


    Section 12 of The Contempt of Court Act, 1971, deals with the punishment in case of contempt of court. 
    Section 12(1): It states that a person may be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which shall not exceed 6 months, or with a fine of maximum 2000 rupees or both.

    Discharging /Remitting by an Apology

    A person accused of contempt may be discharged or the punishment inflicted on him/her may be remitted on an apology being made as per the ‘satisfaction’ of the court. This means that if the apology is bona fide, i.e. without an intention to deceive, the same shall not be rejected merely because of being conditional or qualified. 

    Civil prison in case of Civil Contempt

    Section 12(3): In the case of civil contempt, a fine shall be imposed. However, if the court thinks that imprisonment is also necessary to meet the ends of justice; then the person held guilty of contempt shall be kept in a civil prison instead of simple imprisonment. 

    Contempt by a Company

    Section 12(4) and Section 12(5) deals with punishment where a company is found guilty of contempt. In case a company is held guilty of contempt, then the person(s) in charge of the company or the one/ones owning the company shall be punished. In case of imprisonment is required to meet the ends of justice, the people found in contempt shall be detained in a civil prison.
    However, if a person proves that he had no knowledge or the contempt OR that he had taken every necessary step to prevent its commission; then such person shall not be held liable. 

    It must also be noted here that in case, contempt of court has been committed by a company, and had the consent, or attributes any neglect on part of any director, manager, secretary or other officers of the company; then such person shall also be held liable of contempt. In case of imprisonment is required to meet the ends of justice, then such person shall be detained in a civil prison.


    Apart from the powers of High Court which are vested by the Indian Constitution; Section 10 and Section 11 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 also acts as an addition to these powers. 

    • Section 10:- Every High Court has the power to punish contempts of subordinate courts with the same jurisdiction, power, and authority with which it exercises the contempts of itself. However, if a contempt alleged to have been committed is an offense punishable under the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860), then the High Court shall not take cognizance.
    • Section 11:- A High Court has the jurisdiction to try a contempt of itself or to inquire into the contempt of any subordinate court, which lies within and even outside the local limits or the person who has been alleged to commit such contempt, is within or outside such limits.


    For a person to be held liable for contempt of court, it must be shown that the essentials of Contempt are fulfilled. The following are the acts which don’t make a person liable to contempt of court:-

    1) As per Section 3 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 if a person publishes any matter which interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstructs, the course of justice in relation to any ongoing civil or criminal proceeding, but the person had no reasonable ground for believing that the proceeding was pending, then the person shall not be held guilty for contempt of court. 

    It must be noted that if at the time of the publication of the matter, the proceeding is not pending, and then also the person shall not be held guilty of contempt of court

    Also, if the person at the time of distribution had no reasonable grounds to believe that the publication contained anything of nature above said; then such person shall not be held liable for contempt of court.
    Note:- Exception to this is any publication not complying with Section 3  and Section 5 of the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867(25 of 1867).

    2) As per Section 4 of the Contempt of Court, 1971 a person shall not be held guilty of contempt of court for publishing a fair and accurate report of a judicial proceeding or any stage thereof.
    However, such publication is subject to the exceptions laid down in the provision of Section 7 of the Act of 1971, which talks about the Publication of information relating to proceedings in chambers or in-camera, which doesn’t make a person liable of contempt EXCEPT in certain cases, which are:- 

    1. if the publication is against any provision of any law enforced at that time. 
    2. In case a publication is done, which was prohibited by the court on the grounds of public policy or in the exercise of any power invested in it. 
    3. if the publication involves information related to proceedings where the court sits in chambers or in camera for reasons connected with public order or the security of the State. 
    4. where the information relates to any kind of secrecy involved in proceedings.

    3) As per Section 5 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 a person shall not be guilty of contempt of court for publishing any fair comment on the merits of any case which has been finalized or heard.

    4) As per Section 6 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 a person who makes a complaint against presiding officers of subordinate courts to the High Court or any other High Court; such person shall not be held as a contemner. 

    Note: – Nothing in this Act shall be construed as implying, that apart from these acts not constituting contempt, there cannot be any other defense that would have been valid in a proceeding, but since it is not available in this Act, thus it has to cease to exist. [Section 8 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971]


    By now we must understand that in order to punish a person of contempt, such contempt needs to be proven. However, there are some exceptions to the theory, which prevents a contemner from any punishment to be inflicted on him/her.

    Section 13 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 deals with contempt not punishable in certain cases: 

    (i) In case the contempt is of such nature that it does not substantially interfere or tends to substantially interfere with the due course of justice, then such an act of contempt shall not bear any punishment.

    (ii) If contempt is justified by truth and is in the public interest, then the court may permit it as a valid defence, provided that the request to treat such truth as a valid defence is bona fide (i.e.) without any intention to deceive. 

    Related Case Law: – Indirect Tax Practitioners Assn vs. R.K.Jain 

    “The amended section enables the Court to permit justification by truth as a valid defence in any contempt proceeding if it is satisfied that such defence is in the public interest and the request for invoking the defence is bona fide.”


    Section 14 states the procedure where the contempt has been alleged to be committed in a hearing in front of a Court. In this case, such a person shall be detained and the hearing shall be done on the same day or as early as possible. The person should also be informed in writing about the contempt for which he has been charged. An opportunity should also be given to such a person to defend himself from such charges. And after hearing him, and taking into consideration any evidence presented by such person, the court shall make an order for the punishment or discharge of such person. 

    Section 15 of the Act mentions the power of the Supreme Court or the High Court to take any action in case of criminal contempt and proceedings which are outside the court of records. 

    The Supreme Court or the High Court may take action on its own motion or on a motion made by:-

    (a) The Advocate-General,

    (b) Any other person, with the consent in writing of the Advocate-General,

    (c) In relation to the High Court for the Union territory of Delhi, such Law Officer as the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify in this behalf, or any other person, with the consent in writing of such Law Officer.


    According to Section 16 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, a judge, magistrate or any other person who acts judicially shall be held liable for the contempt of his own court or any other court. The punishment and the applicability of the provision of this Act shall also be the same as in the case of any other individual. 

    However, any observation or remark about a subordinate court in an appeal or revision, made by a judge, magistrate or any other person acting judicially shall not be construed as contempt, even if the statement is against the order or judgement of the subordinate court. 

    Case Law: – Justice CS Karnan’s Case 

    He was the first sitting High Court Judge to be jailed for six months on the accusation of Contempt of Court. The Supreme Court also released an arrest warrant against him on suo moto charges of contempt of court.


    As per Section 20 of The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, there is a limitation period within which an action against contempt can be brought. It limits the court to initiate a proceeding of a matter related to contempt of court. If a period of ONE YEAR has been passed from the date on which the contempt is ‘alleged’ to have been committed.


    Section 21 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 states that this Act is not applicable to Nyaya Panchayats or any other village courts by whatever name known and which are established under the law for the administration of justice.


    Contempt of court is an extremely vexed issue; it has no basic or obvious answers. From one viewpoint, the right to speak freely of an individual is in question, and on the other, the procedures of the court must be secured against danger, pressure, and terrorizing for the agreement of reasonable equity without dread or favor.

    The court should have a mind to accept fair criticism. This will help the court to improve its way of judgements and speedy trials. There has always been a debate regarding the balance which needs to be maintained in the applicability of the Contempt of Courts Law. This has been mainly due to two reasons: Firstly, the vague definition, which leads to multiple interpretations of the terminologies, and Secondly, the lack of codification of the law, leaving various loopholes. 

    Whenever we talk about the codification of laws related to Contempt of Court, the Court says that it will limit the court’s power to ensure its superiority and punish anyone who will cast undue and uncalled for aspersions on its impartiality and integrity. Anybody who questions the integrity of Court shall be punished and so it does not warrant to be codified. 

    A more relaxed system will reflect greater confidence on the part of the judiciary, and may find inspiration from the famous quote of Chief Justice Marshall of the US Supreme Court, “Power of judiciary lies not in deciding cases, nor in imposing sentences, nor in punishing for contempt, but in the trust, confidence, and faith in the common man.”(Source)


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