What is Contempt of Court?

Last updated on Apr 8, 2022

Contempt of court is any action or writing, meant to lower the authority of a court or a Judge or to interfere with the course of justice or the lawful process of the court. The Contempt of Court Act, 1971, defines contempt of court to include two kinds- civil and criminal contempt.1 A contempt proceeding is not a dispute between two parties, but rather a proceeding between the court and the person accused of contempt. 2

Types of Contempt of Court 

Contempt of court can be broadly categorized into two – civil and criminal contempt. 

Civil Contempt

Civil contempt refers to:

  • Willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order or writ. For example, D disobeyed a court order to submit her financial records to the court in an ongoing case. This would be an instance of civil contempt. 
  • A willful breach of an undertaking or affidavit given to a court. For example, V submitted an affidavit to the court that she would return certain confidential papers to her employer within a week but failed to return it within that time period. This would be an instance of civil contempt. 3The undertaking or affidavit given to the court can be in the form of a promise or a direction, based on which the court decides whether something was done or not. 4) For example, not following an undertaking/affidavit where a person has promised to pay a certain amount of money to the court. The main intention of this law is to ensure that people uphold the sanctity of the judicial system and obey the directions given by the court.5

    Criminal Contempt

    Criminal contempt does not require the existence of a judgment, order, direction, decree, writ, or undertaking/affidavit. For criminal contempt, the law requires a publication or action or an attempt, which has any of the following consequences:

    1. Scandalises or lower the authority of any court. For example, if someone deliberately defames and raises their voice at a judge. 
    2. Prejudices, or interferes with any court or tribunal proceeding. For example, a false statement made against a judge for collusion in their capacity as a ‘judge’.
    3. Obstructs the administration of justice in any other manner.6  For example, if a person stops municipal authorities who have been told by the Court to demolish a building. 

    The aim of criminal contempt is not to protect the court from insult, but rather to prevent dilution of the public’s faith in the courts.7 

 

  1. Section 2(a), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  2. State of Maharashtra v Mahboob S. Allibhoy, Supreme Court, (1996) 4 SCC 411.[]
  3. Section 2(b), Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  4. Jayanta Roy v Howrah Parcel (Eastern Railway) Labour Contractor Mazdur Panchayat, Calcutta HC 2000 (1) CHN 884 (Cal[]
  5. Subrata Kunda v Kshiti Goswami, Calcutta HC, 2010 (1) CHN 306.[]
  6. Section 2(c) , Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.[]
  7. Delhi Judicial Service Association, Tis Hazari Court v. the State of Gujarat, (1991) 4 SCC 406.[]

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What does the law say you can/cannot do?

While anything that lowers the authority of the courts can be considered as contempt, there are certain exceptions given in the law. These include innocent publication and distribution of matter, fair and accurate reporting of a judicial proceeding, fair criticism of judicial actions, complaint against presiding officers of subordinate courts and truth.

Where can contempt of court happen?

Contempt of court can happen anywhere - inside court, outside court, on social media. etc. Further, contempt proceedings can be taken up by either the Supreme Court, High Court, or Tribunals. However, the procedure to initiate proceedings will differ based on the place where the alleged contempt happens.

Who are the authorities under the law?

The Constitution of India, 1950 empowers the Supreme Court and High Courts to have the powers to punish for contempt.

Is there a right to appeal against a contempt of court decision?

The law only allows a person to appeal against the decision once. If the appeal fails, no further remedy is present under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.  However, the Constitution of India allows an appeal against any judgment of any court, including the High Court. This is done through a unique form of a petition, known as the ‘Special Leave Petition’.

What are the offences and punishments under this law ?

The punishment for civil and criminal contempt is the same. When one is held guilty of contempt, they have the option to apologize to the court and save themselves from any other punishments. However, such an apology should be genuine and not merely a ruse to save oneself from punishment.

How do you file a complaint for contempt?

The procedure to file a contempt petition depends upon the rules of the respective High Courts and the Supreme Courts.