An Overview of Contempt of Court

Written by: Gunjan Kumar Ravi, Ruchi Nehra and, Mohak Mittal.


The meaning of the word “Contempt” is as state of being disrespectful to anybody or mocking a person as if he is a weakling, worthless or cannot be recognized anywhere. But here we need to make sure that, contempt and defamation are two totally different aspects and there is a wall of difference between the two. Although they may sound similar but are distinct in nature.

In a legal sense, it can be said as the act of being dishonest or insulting the administration or its official is ‘Contempt’. And now if we try to draw out the meaning of the phrase “Contempt of Court”, then we can say that the act of disrespecting the court, its judicial officer or the institution of Judiciary, is the Contempt towards the Court of law or the Bench and thus termed as ‘Contempt of Court’(hereinafter referred as COC). Such an act will also be penalized through proper means.


The milestone of COC in India can be traced back from the colonial period, as at that time, the Superior Court of Records of the British Govt. possessed the power of punishing the person committing the act of Contempt of Court through scandalizing the presiding officers or publishing statements insulting the working of the courts.

Thus even after independence also India continued with the scope of law of Contempt of Court through recommendations of the Sanyal Committee with various different legislations of COC Act 1926 and 1952, but they all failed.Finally came the Contempt of Court Act, 1971, which is an ongoing law till date. This is also supported by the Constitution of India under the ambit of Article 129 and 215, which states that the apex court i.e. Supreme Court and the High Court(s) have the power to take cognizance of matters of COC.


The COC Act, 1971 does not provide us with a concrete definition of contempt of Court, but according to its provision of Section 2(a) of the act, COC is of two types- Civil and Criminal Contempt.


Contempt of Court is to 2 types

  1. Civil Contempt

Definition or meaning of Civil Contempt has been provided under the Section 2(b) of the 1971 act, which states that if there has been any voluntarily disrespect or disobey to any order, judgment, decree or breach of undertaking of the court, it will be considered as the Civil contempt.

  • Criminal Contempt

Definition or meaning of Criminal Contempt has been provided under the Section 2(c) of the 1971 act, which states that Contempt is constituted if by words (written or oral), gestures, or noticeable presentation like publication, any person-

  • Brings down or scandalizes the authority of any court
  • Prejudices or causes hindrance in any judicial proceeding
  • Blocks or interferes in any judicial proceeding or administration of justice


From the above discussion of the kinds of contempt towards the Court, we can surely make out the forms of contempt as well. And these are

  1. Words spoken

If any person speaks or remarks any statement with something disrespectful towards the authority of court or the court itself, which deteriorates its reputation, then such statement will be contemptuous.

  • Words written or published

If any person writes or get published any article or statement being dishonest towards the authority of court or the court itself, and as a result of which it lowers the reputation of court, then such publication will be contemptuous.

  • Noticeable gestures or portrayal

If any person through any sign(s) or any other form of visible representation insults the authority of court or the court itself, which destructs the reputation of court, then such gesture or presentation will be contemptuous.


The person(s) committing the act of Contempt of Court can be punished according to the provision of the Section 12 of the 1971 Act, where it states that the punishment for the act of COC will be simple imprisonment extended upto 6 months or fine extended upto Rs. 2000 or both. It also states that no court can exceed any punishment than the prescribed one in any matter of COC.

In regard to matter of COC, there are various defences which can be taken by a person who has been alleged to have committed any contemptuous act. These are

  1. In the case of civil contempt, the person can take defences like-
  2. No awareness about the decision passed
  3. The decision passed was ambiguous and vague in nature
  4. The decision lacks reasonable interpretation or has more than a single interpretation
  5. If the act so done by him was not intentional, merely accidental
  6. The order so passed was out of the jurisdiction of that court
  7. The compliance with the decision so passed is not possible
  8. In the matter of Criminal Contempt, the person can take defences like-
  9. The publication so made was made
  10. When the person was not aware that the proceedings were pending
  11. At the time of publication, proceedings were not pending
  12. Not aware that the material so distributed after publication was contemptuous
  13. Publication of accurate and fair judicial proceedings if they are not prohibited by the court on grounds of
  14. Public order and public policy
  15. State security
  16. Secret information on any invention or discoveries etc.
  17. A statement made was only criticism of a case decided or the judge, without any malicious intention. Also if it has been made by a person of the legal fraternity, it can act as a defence.
  18. A complaint against a judge or presiding officer, which is in good-faith or bonafide in nature
  19. If the act was for public concern or does not cause any interference in the administration of justice
  20. If the statement so made has two different interpretations. One is contemptuous and other is not, so it has to be proved that the statement was made in the ambit of the latter interpretation.
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  • It defines contempt to be of two types, civil and criminal.
  • Punishment of contempt is about six month’s imprisonment and about 2000 rupees or both.
  • Amendment of 2006 included “truth and good faith” as a defence for contempt.
  •  Criticism
  • Remembrance of the British colonialism, not developed on Indian ground field.
  • Restrict contempt to the “wilful evidence” and scandalization of the court”.
  • A large number of contempt cases pending to be decided.
  • Law commission review 2018
  • Deletion of an offence may lead to a legislative gap.
  • This deletion would not affect the power of the judiciary to take cognizance under the constitution.
  • If caused to be diluted then it may expose subordinate judiciary to acts of contempt.


  • A Suo Moto insight is a Latin expression which implies an activity taken by an administration organization, court or other local experts on their own fear.
  • A court takes a Suo Moto Cognizance of a lawful issue when it gets data about the infringement of rights or penetration of obligation through media or an outsider’s warning.
  • Article 32 and 226 of the Indian Constitution set out the arrangements for recording Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in Supreme Court and High Courts separately. This has offered to ascend to the court’s capacity to start a lawful activity on their insight of an issue.
  • Suo Moto’s capacity of the High Court has been given under Article 131 of the Indian Constitution.
  • Article 131 vests the Supreme Court with unique locale over any question emerging between the states or between the Union and state. The article enables the Supreme Court to take up such cases straight as opposed to experiencing a lower court or checking on a lower court’s judgment
  • Suo Moto’s activities by Indian courts are an impression of legal activism.


The dynamic function of the Indian legal executive, especially that of the Supreme Court, has been acknowledged both inside and outside the country. The autonomy guaranteed through the sacred arrangements for the legal executive and consequently reinforced by the legal understanding has certainly added to the current status of the Indian legal executive. However, in this circle of legal activism, there are additionally a couple of coinciding misguided judgments that should be perceived so as to value the dissident part of the legal executive in India better.

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) made legal activism conceivable in India. Under the steady gaze of the court acknowledges an issue for arbitration, it must be fulfilled that the individual who approaches it has adequate enthusiasm for the issue. The test is whether the solicitor has locus standi to keep up the activity? This is expected to stay away from superfluous prosecution. The legitimate teaching that nobody aside from the influenced individual can move toward a court for a lawful cure was holding the field both in regard of private and public law mediations until it was ousted by the PIL wave.


The power of the Supreme Court and the High Court has nothing to do with the Act of 1971 as it has inherent power to punish for its contempt. This power is derived from Article 129 and 215 of the Constitution. Article 129 states that “the Supreme Court of India shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court to punish for contempt of itself.” Likewise, the High Courts are also the court of record and have inherent power to punish for contempt as explained in Article 215. Court of Records is those courts where all the proceedings are recorded and preserved for any further reference as evidence. The Supreme Court is also conferred with the power under Art 142(2) where it can investigate and punish any person for the contempt. Therefore, even if changes are made in the offences under the 1971 Act, the power of the Supreme Court remains unaffected.


Whether contempt of court is in contravention of the fundamental right of speech and expression, has been under controversy at all times. But the Constitution recognises contempt as a reasonable restriction given under Art 19(2) on the rights conferred under Art 19(1). Issues have also arisen as to the vagueness of the law that judges might arbitrarily use the power to promote their dignity and prevent any criticisms. But the citizens are entitled to criticise and make fair comments in a democracy. As when such conflict arises, the right of citizens must be kept at an upper hand keeping note of the circumstances.


When the contempt law originated, it was draconian in nature that didn’t safeguard the rights of people accused of contempt, which was inconsistent with the Constitution. In a free society, criticism cannot be escaped whether it is a decision of the administrative body or the judiciary. Contempt law must be put to use when any comment makes it impossible for judiciary to work as criticism only helps one to amend their mistakes. The judiciary has to work to create a balance between rights and contempt.

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