The Supreme Court has issued notices to stand-up comic Kunal Kamra and cartoonist Rachita Taneja for contempt action against them for tweets allegedly scandalising the court.
What is contempt of court?
Contempt of court simply means disrespecting the court in any way. In India, anyone can be punished by the court if they disrespect the court or show contempt towards courts. The law regulating this is the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.
There are two types of contempt of court: Civil contempt and Criminal contempt.
If someone deliberately disobeys any judgment, direction, order, or other process of the court, then they are disrespecting the court and this is civil contempt. Also, if someone purposely violates an undertaking (breaks an agreement or a promise) that they have given to the court, it is civil contempt of court.
Criminal contempt of court happens when a person disrespects the court by publishing anything or doing something that:
- lowers the authority of any court
- influences or interferes with any judicial proceeding (like a legal case being heard by the court)
- obstructs the judicial process in any other way
What is not considered as contempt of court?
People can publish fair and accurate reports of court proceedings related to any pending legal case, unless this has been prohibited by the court. It is also permissible to publish a fair analysis of any final judgement given by the court after deciding a case.
Punishment for contempt of court
If someone disrespects the court through civil or criminal contempt of court, the punishment is jail time for up to six months and/or a fine up to Rupees two thousand. The punishment may be cancelled if the person apologises to the court and the court is satisfied with the apology.
The Supreme Court judgement
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court delivered a judgement discussing contempt of court in a case against lawyer Prashant Bhushan. In the judgement, the Court said that a citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1) of our Constitution. So, a citizen is allowed to make a fair criticism of a judge, judiciary and its functioning. If a constructive criticism is made in order to enable systemic correction in the system, the Court will not look into the issue of contempt.
However, the right to speech has certain reasonable restrictions, and an attempt has to be made to properly balance the right and the restrictions. The Court held that if a citizen exceeds the limits and makes a statement which tends to scandalize the judges and institution of administration of justice, such an action could be considered as contempt of court.
Further, the Court said that if a citizen makes a statement which tends to undermine the dignity and authority of the Court, or a statement which tends to shake the public confidence in the judicial institutions, this will come within the scope of ‘criminal contempt’.
When a statement is made against a judge as an individual, contempt of court will not apply. However, when the statement is made against a judge as a ‘judge’, and which has an adverse effect in the administration of justice, the Court can look into the issue of contempt of court.