Nov 18, 2022

Do derogatory remarks in a petition count as Contempt of Court?

Recently the Supreme Court of India issued notice to the petitioner and the Advocate on Record (AOR) in a Special Leave Petition challenging an order of the Karnataka High Court. It observed that the petition contains remarks which are “not only derogatory to the Karnataka High Court but also highly contemptuous in nature.” In that light,  the Supreme Court ordered the petitioner and the AOR to explain why the court should not initiate contempt proceedings against them. 

This evokes a lot of questions about what constitutes contempt of court and what is an advocate’s liability if they submit a petition that the Court deems contemptuous. 

What is Contempt of Court?

According to the Contempt of Court Act, 1971, contempt of court refers to an action that intends to lower the authority of a court or a Judge or interferes with the course of justice or the lawful process of any court of law. Contempt of Court may be of two kinds – Civil or Criminal.

A wilful disobedience of an order of a court or an affidavit or undertaking submitted before a court is considered a civil contempt. On the other hand, a criminal contempt constitutes any action or attempt which either scandalises or lowers the authority of a court or interferes with the proceedings of a court or a tribunal or obstructs the administration of justice in any manner. 

Is a lawyer responsible for any contemptuous remarks in a petition?

Petitions present the grievances and justifications of a person approaching the court. The role of advocates is to plead on behalf of such a person upon their instructions. So, one may believe that any contemptuous clauses in a petition should not implicate an advocate. However, in 1955, the Supreme Court in the case of M.Y Shareef and Anr. V. The Hon’ble Judges of the High Court of Nagpur and Ors. held that a lawyer is guilty of contempt of court even if they sign a petition which contains any derogatory remarks. In fact, according to the Bar Council of India Rules, 1975, ‘showing respect towards the court’ is an important duty of an advocate

So in this case, not only the petitioner but also the Advocate on Record (AOR) has been asked to respond to the notice and appear before the court. 

Why is the Supreme Court considering initiating contempt proceedings?

The current case involves an appeal against a decision of the High Court of Karnataka where the court dismissed a challenge to the selection of the Chief Information Commissioner and other Information Commissioners by the State of Karnataka. The High Court had also imposed costs on the petitioner. The petition before the Supreme Court implied that the Karnataka High Court showed favouritism towards the respondent and had ulterior purposes in imposing cost on the petitioner. 

These are very serious allegations against a court of law and without any material proof or adequate grounds can amount to criminal contempt. This is why the Supreme Court is considering initiating proceedings against both the petitioner as well as the advocate.