Any undermining of a court's authority, either by scandalizing it or by non-compliance or disobedience of its orders, either by scandalizing it or by non-compliance or disobedience of its orders, is punishable as contempt of court. In Supreme Court Bar Association v. Union of India (1998) 4 SCC 409, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court summarized the scope of the contempt jurisdiction of the court as under:
"The contempt of court is a special jurisdiction to be exercised sparingly and with caution whenever an act adversely affects the administration of justice or which lends to impede its course or tends to shake public confidence in the Judicial Institutions. This Jurisdiction may also be exercised when the act complained of adversely affects the majesty of law or dignity of the courts. The purpose of contempt jurisdiction is uphold the majesty and dignity of the courts law. It is an unusual type of jurisdiction combining "the jury, the Judge and the hangman" and it is so because the court is not adjudicating upon any claim between litigating parties. This jurisdiction is not exercised to protect the dignity of an individual judge but to protect the administration of justice from be maligned. In general interest of the community it is imperative that the authority of courts should not be imperiled and there should be no unjustifiable interference in the administration of justice. It is a matter between the court and the contemnor and third parties cannot intervene. It is exercised in a summary manner in aid to the administration of justice, the majority of law and the dignity of the courts. No such act can be permitted which may have the tendency to shake the public confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the administration of justice."
There are two categories of Contempt of court as per The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971
Civil Contempt is defined under section 2(b) of the Act to mean a willful disobedience of any judgment, decree, direction, order writ or other process of a court or willful breach of an undertaking given to a court.
Criminal Contempt has been defined as publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which:
(i) Scandalizes or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or
(ii) prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or
(iii) Interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.
Section 12 of the Contempt of Court has provision for punishment that can be imposed when a person is found guilty of contempt of court. The maximum sentence that can be imposed is that imprisonment for six months. There is also a provision for fine. Cognizance of criminal contempt of a court can be taken by the court on its own motion, or on a motion made by the Advocate General or any other person, with the consent in writing of the Advocate General. The explanation to Section 15 makes it clear that in relation to the Supreme Court the expression Advocate General would mean Attorney General or Solicitor General.
The Contempt of Court Act, 1971 indicates the acts that amount as contempt of court. It lays down the procedure for taking cognizance of the contempt of court. It also provides for punishment for contempt. The power of the Supreme Court to punish for contempt, including for contempt of itself, flows from Article 129 of the Constitution. Article 142 of the constitution is of enforcement of decrees and orders of Supreme Court and orders as to discovery, etc.
The Supreme Court has held that if there is a violation of the orders of the Court, it would not stop at merely punishing the wrongdoer, but by exercise of its constitutional powers, ensure that the contemnors do not benefit by the violation of the order of the Court.
In case it comes to light that forgery had been committed in relation to a document that has been produced before the Supreme court, the same may amount to contempt of court and the Court may take action accordingly. It may also or in alternative make a complaint to a criminal court under Section 340 of the CrPC for punishing the accused for the offence of forgery under section 193 of the IPC. The Supreme Court in its contempt jurisdiction, has no jurisdiction to punish a contemnor for an offence under Section 193 of IPC, as the Court does not have original criminal Jurisdiction.
A mere violation of the orders of the Supreme Court does not ipso facto amount to contempt of the Court. The violation should be willful and deliberate. The Supreme Court has laid down detailed guidelines in the case of D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal (1997) 1 SCC 466, as regards to arrest and detention of persons. It has further laid down that the violation of these guidelines will be punishable by invoking the contempt jurisdiction of the respective High Courts.
Section 14 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 provides that when it appears to the Supreme Court or High Court that a person has been guilty of contempt committed in its presence of hearing, the Court may cause such person to be detained in custody, and at any time, before the rising of the Court inform him of the charges afford him an opportunity to make his defence.
An Advocate is an officer of the Court and therefore, it is the duty of the lawyer to ensure that the administration of justice is not hampered by acts which may be in contempt of Court. The law of contempt applies equally to lawyers as it does to others.
In Spence and Company Ltd v. Vishwadarshan Distributors Pvt Ltd (1995) 1 SCC 259, the Supreme Court has in passing order commented that it was possible for the Supreme Court to take suitable action against the Judges of the High Court in case there was violation of an order of the Supreme Court. In that case the request of the Supreme Court to decide a case pending in the High Court early was negated by the High court. The Court drew attention to Article 141, 142 and 144 of the Constitution. However, on the advice of the Solicitor General and the former Attorney Genera, the Court persuaded itself not to do anything, but directed the hearing of case within a month from the date of the communication of order.
Statements made by parties / others during the pendency of litigation could amount to contempt of Supreme Court as the trial by court is sought to be displaced by trial by news paper. A factually incorrect statement by the press can lead to an action against the editor/ publisher / report in contempt jurisdiction.
Since the power to punish for contempt has been conferred on the Supreme Court, it can investigate disputed questions of facts, to come to a conclusion if contempt has been made out. Considering the summary nature of the jurisdiction of the Court, more often than not, the Supreme court appoints a commission / committee to look into the disputed questions of fact and determines the questions of fact on the basis of the report and the objections of the parties thereupon.
Averments in affidavits filed in the course of judicial proceedings can amount to contempt. In re Arundhati Roy (2002) 3 SCC 343, the contemnor, a noted writer, in her reply to contempt application on which notice had been issued to her, state that the Court had displayed "a disturbing willingness to issue a notice on an absurd, despicable and entirely unsubstantiated petition." and that "It indicates a disquieting inclination on the part of the Court to silence criticism and muzzle dissent, to harass and to intimidate those who disagree with it." The court held that these averments amounted to a destructive attach on the reputation and the credibility of the institution, that they undermined the public confidence in the judiciary as a whole and that they could by no stretch of imagination could be held to be a fair criticism of the courts proceedings. The convicted her for contempt of Court and sentenced her to simple imprisonment for one day and a fine of Rs. 2000.
Since the contempt case have to be dealt with in a summary manner, the Supreme Court has sui generis power under Article 129 read with Article 142 to follow such procedure as it may deem fit in cases of contempt of Court, as long as the procedure is in consonance with the broad principles of natural justices. Section 23 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 provides that the Supreme Court and High Court shall have the power to make Rules, not consistent with the Act, for regulating the procedure. The power of the Supreme Court to make Rules flows from Section 23 of the Act and Articles 145 of the constitution. In exercise of that power the Supreme Court has framed the Rules to Regulate proceedings for contempt of the Supreme Court 1975. Rule 3 provides for cognizable of the contempt and Rule 4 provides that the requirements of a contempt petition. On preliminary hearing if the Court is satisfied that a case for contempt is made out, the Court may issue notice which is contained in Form-I. As per Rule 6 Until otherwise ordered, the person charged with contempt should be personally present in the Court and remain present on all days until otherwise ordered by the Court. Rule 10 provides that the Court may direct the Attorney General or the Solicitor General to assist the Court.