The present law of contempt of court in India is a hangover of the original law on this subject in England. This originated from an undelivered judgment of J Wilmot in 1765, where the judge said the power of contempt of court was necessary to maintain the dignity and majesty of judges and vindicate their authority.
But whence comes this dignity and authority of judges? In England, in feudal times, it came from the king, who was the fountain of justice, and would often decide cases himself. Later, when he had many other duties, he delegated judicial functions to his delegates, who were called judges. Thus, in a monarchy, the judge really exercises the delegated function of the king, and for this he requires the dignity, authority and majesty which a king must have, to secure obedience.
In feudal times, the king was supreme, and the people were his subjects. They could not criticize him, and such criticism was punishable.
In a democracy, however, this relationship is reversed. Now it is the people who are supreme (see Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’), and all state authorities, including judges, are nothing but their servants.
Hence in a democracy there is no need for judges to vindicate their authority or display pomp and majesty. Their authority comes not from fear of contempt but from the public confidence, and this in turn depends on their own conduct, integrity, impartiality, and learning.
This view is accepted now even in England. As observed by Lord Salmon in AG vs Bbb (1981) A.C. 303, “The description contempt of court no doubt has a historical basis, but it is nevertheless misleading. Its object is not to protect the dignity of the court, but to protect the administration of justice”.
“Justice is not a cloistered virtue,” said Lord Atkin. “It must suffer the scrutiny and outspoken comments of ordinary men”.
In R. Vs. Commr. of Police (1968) 2 QB 150 Lord Denning observed, “Let me say at once that we will never use this jurisdiction to uphold our own dignity. That must rest on surer foundations. Nor will we use it to suppress those who speak against us. We do not fear criticism, nor do we resent it. For there is something far more important at stake. It is no less than freedom of speech itself…All that we ask is that those who criticize us should remember that, from the nature of our duties, we cannot reply to their criticism. We cannot enter into public controversy. We must rely on our conduct itself to be its own vindication”.
Sometimes an upright judge is unjustifiably criticized. The best course of action for such a judge is to ignore baseless criticism (but pay heed to honest and correct criticism). He should have broad enough shoulders to shrug off baseless comments without getting perturbed or influenced.
Once a British newspaper ran a banner headline calling the majority judges of the House of Lords who decided the Spycatcher case ( Attorney General vs. Guardian Newspaper, 1987 3 AllE.R.316) “YOU FOOLS”. Fali Nariman, who was present in England at that time, asked Lord Templeman, who was one of the majority, why the Judges did not take contempt action. Lord Templeman smiled, and said that judges in England took no notice of personal insults. Although he did not regard himself as a fool, others were entitled to their opinion.
In Balogh vs Crown Court at Albon (1975) AC 373, the defendant told the Judge “You are a humourless automaton. Why don’t you self destruct?”. The judge smiled, but took no action.
Now coming to the law of contempt in India, we find it is uncertain. Nariman described it in a speech as ‘Dog’s Law’.
He quoted Bentham, who said that when a dog does something nasty we beat him for it. Similarly, the laws in England become known only when someone is punished by the courts. The same is true about the law of contempt in India, and thus it is a standing threat to freedom of speech.
To illustrate, in Duda’s case AIR 1988 SC 1208, a Union Cabinet minister said that the Supreme Court sympathized with zamindars and bank magnates.
He further said, “FERA violators, bride burners, and a whole horde of reactionaries have found their haven in the Supreme Court” and that Supreme Court judges have “unconcealed sympathy for the haves”. No action was taken against him. Nariman asked whether if such a comment had been made by an ordinary man the court would have taken no action.
Moreover, in an earlier decision, in the case of Namboodiripad (former CM of Kerala), who accused Supreme Court judges of being biased in favour of the rich, (an allegation similar to that of the Union minister in Duda’s case) the court convicted Namboodiripad for contempt (AIR 1770 2015). Where is the certainty or consistency in the law ?
We have two provisions in our Constitution, Article 19(1)(a) which gives citizens freedom of speech, and Articles 129 and 215 which give the Supreme Court and High Court the power of contempt. How are these provisions to be reconciled. In my opinion, since Article 19(1)(a) is the right of the people who are supreme in a democracy, while Articles 129 and 215 are powers of judges, who are servants of the people, the reconciliation can only be done by holding that freedom of speech is primary, while the contempt power is only secondary.
It follows that the contempt power cannot be exercised because people are criticizing a judge. It can only be exercised if someone makes the functioning of the judge impossible eg if while a judge is hearing a case someone jumps on to the dias and tries to run away with the court file, or if he attacks or threatens a witness.
If someone calls a judge a fool inside the courtroom and goes away, in my opinion it is not contempt, for he has not stopped the functioning of the court.
But if he keeps shouting in court the whole day, and despite warning does not stop, he is obviously not letting the court function, and this would be contempt. After all disputes in society have to be adjudicated, and judges must decide cases to justify payment of salaries to them.
I submit that the time has come now for Parliament, the judiciary and others concerned to take a fresh look at the law of contempt of court in the light of what I have said above, and bring about necessary amendments. (Published in The Times of India on 28/07/2014)