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Contempt of Courts Summary

Power to punish for contempt of courts in India was first recognized by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which observed that the powers of the High Courts to punish against contempt are the same in such courts as in the Supreme Court in England.

The first Indian stature on the law of contempt i.e., the Contempt of Courts Act was passed in 1926. Later states like Hyderabad, Madhya Bharat, Mysore, Pepsu, Rajastha, Travancore-Cochin and Saurashtra enacted laws, which was replaced by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1952.

A Special Committee set up on 28th February,1963 to define and limit the powers of certain courts in punishing contempt of courts and to regulate their procedure in relation thereto. Joint Select Committee of Parliament on Contempt of Courts went in detail and a new Bill, The Contempt of Courts Bill, 1968 was prepared by the Joint Select Committee


The term Contempt of Court is derived from the Latin words contemptus curiae and has been in currency since 17th Century.In the indian context following acts may amount to contempt:

  • Anything that curtails or impairs the freedom of limits of the judicial proceedings.
  • Any conduct that tends to bring the authority and administration of Law into disrespect or disregard or to interfere with or prejudice parties or their witnesses during litigation.
  • Consisting of words spoken or written which obstruct or tend to obstruct the administration of justice.
  • Publishing words which tend to bring the administration of Justice into contempt, to prejudice the fair trial of any cause or matter which is the subject of Civil or Criminal proceeding or in anyway to obstruct the cause of Justice.

Contempt of Courts Act,1971

In India, the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, divides contempt into civil contempt and criminal contempt.

Civil contempt’ is a ‘wilful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other processes of a Court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to the court’.

Criminal contempt’ is ‘the 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:

  • Scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court.
  • Prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with the due course of any judicial proceeding.
  • Interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.’

Need:Judiciary ensures justice and equality to every individual and institutions, therefore, the makers of the constitution upheld the sanctity and prestige of the revered institution by placing provisions under articles 129 and 215 of the constitution, which enables the courts to hold individuals in contempt if they attempt to demean or belittle their authority.

Limitation period for initiating contempt proceedings

The Limitation period for actions of contempt is a period of one year from the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed [u/S. 20 of the Act ]

Cognizance of criminal contempt in other cases

  1. In the case of a criminal contempt, other than a contempt referred to in section 14, the Supreme Court or the High Court may take action on its own motion or on a motion made by-
    • (a) the Advocate-General, or
    • (b) any other person, with the consent in writing of the Advocate General.
  2. In the case of any criminal contempt of a subordinate court, the High Court may take action on a reference made to it by the subordinate court or on a motion made by the Advocate-General or, in relation to a Union territory, by such Law Officer as the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify in this behalf [Sec.15].

Procedure after cognizance

  1. Notice of every proceeding under section 15 shall be served personally on the person charged, unless the court for reasons to be recorded directs otherwise [Sec.17]

Procedure to decide Contempt of Court

Every case of criminal contempt under section 15 shall be heard and determined by a Bench of not less than two Judges. [Sec 18 ]


  1. An appeal shall lie as of right from any order or decision of High Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction to punish for contempt-
    • (a) where the order or decision is that of a single Judge, to a Bench of not less than two Judges of the Court ;
    • (b) where the order or decision is that of a Bench, to the Supreme Court : [Sec. 19]

Limitation for Appeal

An appeal under sub-section (1) shall be filed-

  • in the case of an appeal to a Bench of the High Court, within thirty days ;
  • in the case of an appeal to the Supreme Court, within sixty days, from the date of the order appealed against. [Sec 19 (4) ]

Is criticism allowed?

Yes. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, very clearly states that fair criticism of any case which has been heard and decided is not contempt.

Contempt of Courts (Amendment) Act, 2006

The statute of 1971 has been amended by the Contempt of Courts (Amendment) Act, 2006 to include the defence of truth under Section 13 of the original legislation.

Section 13 that already served to restrict the powers of the court in that they were not to hold anyone in contempt unless it would substantially interfere with the due process of justice, the amendment further states that the court must permit ‘justification by truth as a valid defence if it is satisfied that it is in public interest and the request for invoking the said defence is bona fide.’

Constitutional Background

Article 129: Grants Supreme Court the power to punish for contempt of itself.

Article 142(2): Enables the Supreme Court to investigate and punish any person for its contempt.

Article 215: Grants every High Court the power to punish for contempt of itself.

Recently, the Attorney General for India granted consent to initiate criminal contempt of court proceedings against a comic illustrator for allegedly scandalizing the judiciary through her tweets and illustrations.

Role of AG In Cases of Contempt of Court

In the case of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General or the Solicitor General may bring in a motion before the court for initiating a case of criminal contempt.

In the case of High Courts, the Advocate General is entitled to do the same.

If the motion is brought by any other person, the consent in writing of the Attorney General or the Advocate General is required.

The objective behind the cognizance of a complaint is to save the time of the court.

Judicial time is squandered if frivolous petitions are made and the court is the first forum for bringing them in.

The AG’s consent is meant to be a safeguard against frivolous petitions, as it is deemed that the AG, as an officer of the court, will independently ascertain whether the complaint is indeed valid.

When the court itself initiates a contempt of court case, the AG’s consent is not required. This is because the court is exercising its inherent powers under the Constitution to punish for contempt and such Constitutional powers cannot be restricted because the AG declined to grant consent.

Once the consent of the AG is given in writing, a notice under The Contempt of Courts Act is served personally on the person against whom the proceedings are sought to be initiated by the court.

If the court decides not to serve the notice personally, the law requires the court to record the reasons for it.If the court is satisfied that the alleged contemnor is likely to abscond or evade judicial proceedings, it can order attachment of property of a value that it deems reasonable.

Case studies

M.B. Sanghi, Advocate V. High Court Of Punjab And Haryana

[AIR 1991 SC 1834:1991( 3 )SCC 600]

Unable to secure an ad-interim stay in favour of his client, the appellant, a practicing Advocate, uttered certain words imputing motives to the Sub-Judge in refusing to grant the stay.- Had the effect of scandalizing the Court and impairing confidence of public in Court–Hence guilty of contempt Apology-Tendering of–Not to serve as mere defense against rigors of law- Should reflect remorse and contrition of contemnor- Tendering 'unqualified apology' in case Court finds him guilty–Not sincere-Contemnor addicted to use of contemptuous language against Judges and tendering apology–Apology used merely a device to escape–Not to be accepted–Use of contempt jurisdiction against erring members of legal profession- Courts are slow in the hope that Bar Councils will take care to maintain ethical norms- Decline in ethical values in the profession-Arrest of- Timely action by Bar Councils- Need for -held- “It is well-settled that an apology is not a weapon of defence to purge the guilty of their offence; nor is it intended to operate as a universal panacea, but it is intended to be evidence of real contriteness.”

Delhi Judicial Service Association Vs. State Of Gujarat

[AIR 1991 SC 2176 :1991 SCC (4) 406]

Chief Judicial Magistrate, Nadiad, Gujarat Assaulted, arrested on flimsy grounds, handcuffed, tied with rope, photographs taken and published by Police Officers


Constituted clear case of criminal contempt–Contemnors-punishment–Quantum of punishment determined according to degree and extent of part played by each contemnor–Guidelines laid down by Supreme Court in case of arrest and detention of a Judicial Officer–To be followed by State Governments as well as High Courts–Judicial Officer not to visit Police Station—Except in connection with official and judicial duties and with prior intimation to District and Sessions Judge.

Mohd. Aslam Obhure V. Union Of India &State Of Uttar Pradesh And Ors

[ AIR 1995 SC 548:1994( 6 )SCC 442]

Willful disobedience of order of Court-Babri Masjid Case-Undertaking given by Chief Minister of a State both in his personal capacity and on behalf Of his Government- Flagrant breach of undertaking- Personal element shown in act of disobedience of order of Courts- Reasonable steps not taken to prevent violation of order of court-Chief Minister of the State convicted of an offence: of Contempt of Courts- Sentence of imprisonment of one day with fine of Rs. 2,000 imposed.

Delhi Development Authority Vs. Skipper Construction

[1995 SCC (3) 507]

Respondents violating directions of Court- Also filing suit in High Court in respect of same subject matter regarding which their special leave petition had been dismissed -Suo Motu notice to respondents by Court- Contemnors tendering apology-Held, respondents' actions amounted to Contempt of Court- Apology is not a weapon of defense forged to purge guilt of offences - Contemnors sentenced to simple imprisonment- However, sentence deferred subject to conditions.

Held Abuse of the process of court calculated to hamper the due course of judicial proceeding or the orderly administration of justice is a contempt of court.”

In RE: Shri Sanjiv Datta, Deputy Secretary,Ministry Of Information & Broadcasting

[1995 SCC (3) 619]

Suo moto contempt notice issued to a public servant and his advocates- Affidavit filed in the Supreme Court containing allegations against the Court- Allegations made with intention of casting aspersions on the Court and attributing motives to it- Accusing the Court of making mockery of established policy of Government of India by permitting a foreign agency to undertake broadcasting from India against national interest thereby undermining sovereignty of the nation-Unconditional apology of public servant not accepted-Allegations made by the contemnor were intentional- Made with full knowledge of its grave implications and therefore has potentiality of mischief-If not curbed firmly, may assume proportion grave enough to sabotage the rule of law. Unconditional apology of advocates- Accepted for want of knowledge of allegations. (Officers-let your mind and not the heart speak)

Citizens For Democracy V. State Of Assam

[AIR 1996 SC 2193:1995(3)SCR 943:1995(3)SCC 743]

Constitution of India-Arts 14, 19, 21 and 32- Rights of under-trial prisoners- Safe custody- Use of fetters-Not permissible- Handcuffs not to be forced on a prisoner -No authority with police and jail authorities to direct handcuffing of any inmate- Magistrate may grant permission to handcuff prisoner -Public Interest Litigation. Contempt of Courts Act-Handcuffing of under- trial prisoners-Directions given by this Court- Mandate to be followed by police, jail authorities and by subordinate judiciary-Binding directions issued.

Dhananjay Sharma V.State Of Haryana And Ors

[1995 (3) SCR 964]

Criminal contempt-Illegal detention of detenues by police officials in ranks of SP, DSP and SHO-Habeas Corpus petition filed in Supreme Court- Police officials filing false affidavits and giving false statements in Court- Besides, DSP and SHO effectively pressurising one of detenues to file false affidavit and give false statement in Court-Even after report of C.B.I. establishing factum of illegal detention of detenu by police personnel, latter filing false affidavits in Court denying the facts- Held swearing of false affidavits in a court of law amounts to criminal contempt as it has not only the tendency of causing obstruction in due course of judicial proceedings, but also to impede, obstruct or interfere with administration of justice- SP, DSP and SHO punished for committing contempt of Court-Their apologies rejected being not apologies of truly repentant persons but made with a view to escape punishment- Conduct of Secretary, Department of Home in not filing affidavit in response to Court's direction disapproved-Director General of Police warned to be careful in future- Apologies tendered by these two, being genuine and bona fide, accepted

The Commissioner, Agra & Ors.Vs.Rohtas Singh & Ors

[AIR 1998 SC 685]

Contempt of court- Commission of- By Government officials- Appearance of Law Officers to defend Government officials against whom notices for contempt of court were issued for disobedience of order of Court-Authorisation of  Held : State Government can authorise any of its Law Officers to appear and defend such Government Officials- High Court not justified in striking down Government Order which provided for a panel of Advocates for defending Government Officials in contempt petitions-High Court cannot also give general directions that the litigation expenses in contempt proceedings would be borne not by the Government but by the Government Officials- However, in certain situations Advocate General may decline to appear for an alleged contemnor who is a Government Official-Where the conduct of the Government official is contumacious, the court can direct him to pay costs personally

Indian Airports Employees Union Vs. Ranjan Chatterjee & Another

[AIR 1999 SC 880:1999( 2 )SCC 537]

Civil contempt-Willful disobedience-Disobedience of order of court-Supreme Court directed regularization of workmen upon abolition of contract labour system-However, certain workmen were not regularised on the ground that the said direction did not apply to these workmen


In order to amount to “civil contempt” disobedience must be “willful”-If disobedience is based on interpretation of court's order, notification and other relevant documents it does not amount to willful disobedience-Further, the question of regularization has to be decided in appropriate proceedings- Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, S. 10. “ It is well settled that disobedience of orders of Court, in order to amount to `civil contempt' under Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 must be `willful' and proof of mere disobedience is not sufficient. Where there is no deliberate flouting of the orders of the court but a mere misinterpretation of the executive instructions, it would not be a case of Civil Contempt.”