Jul 8, 2022

Contempt of Court and the Rule of Law

Guest post by Pallavi Mohan

Recently, controversy has erupted over a Supreme Court Judge’s statements on a person who had brought a case before the court after making controversial statements designed to promote communal disharmony (the petitioner). The person in question has received bouquets and backlash alike for her statement. Whatever one’s views on this controversy, it does raise the question of what value can be put on the oral statements of the Supreme Court Judge and whether outright social media criticism of the judge affects the rule of law.

What is the value of oral statements made by judges in open court?

Here, the Supreme Court issued a written order permitting the petitioner to withdraw her petition for clubbing of FIRs registered against her in various states. There is no mention in the written order of the comments made by the judge during the oral hearing.

As such, the written order is the only material and relevant part which decides the rights of the parties to the case. Any oral comments made by judges during the hearing or the oral discussion before the passing of the written order have absolutely no value in the eyes of law.

Can the person file a petition calling for the removal of the comments made against her?

With a written order, if a party is dissatisfied, they can seek a review of that order from the same judge. They can point out the error of the judge in their consideration of the facts of the case or the application of law. However, with oral comments made during the hearing, the party cannot get such comments removed or reviewed, especially since they hold no legal value.

Does the social media outrage on the remarks of the Supreme Court judge amount to contempt of court? 

Article 129(8) and 142(2) of the Constitution of India empower the Supreme Court to investigate and punish any incident of contempt against itself. Making personal remarks against a sitting Supreme Court judge can amount to criminal contempt of the court. Criminal contempt takes place when a person says or does anything that scandalises the court, prejudices or interferes with judicial proceedings and the administration of justice. To understand this further, check out our explainer on Contempt of Court.

In the present case, supporters of the petitioner put up posts on social media questioning the concerned judge’s political affiliation, demanding that he retract his statements, and even going to the extent of starting a petition seeking his impeachment. These attempts at maligning the reputation of the concerned judge interfere with the free and fair administration of justice. It can cause future judges to be hesitant to express their true opinions in open court for the fear of a social media backlash. For rule of law to prevail and for the independence of the judiciary to be maintained, people who malign the reputation of judges whenever they disagree with an order or statement of a judge must be checked. This can be done by exercising the power of contempt of court sensibly.