The administration of justice and judges are open to public criticism and public scrutiny. Judges have their accountability to the society and their accountability must be judged by the conscience and oath to their office, i.e., to defend and uphold the Constitution and the laws without fear and favour. Thus, the judges must do, in the light given to them to determine, what is right. Any criticism about the judicial system or the judges which hampers the administration of justice or which erodes the faith in the objective approach of the judges and brings administration of justice to ridicule must be prevented. The contempt of court proceedings arise out of that attempt. Judgments can be criticized. Motives to the judges need not be attributed. It brings the administration of justice into disrepute. Faith in the administration of justice is one of the pillars on which democratic institution functions and sustains. Criticism about the judicial system or judges should be welcome so long as such criticism does not impair or hamper the administration of justice. This is how the courts should exercise the powers vested in them and judges have to punish a person for an alleged contempt by taking notice of the contempt suo motu or at the behest of the litigant or a lawyer.
The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, has been introduced for the purposes of securing a feeling of confidence of the people in general and for due and proper administrative weapon in the hands of the law courts. The Supreme Court, as the highest court of the land, has not only the right to protect itself from being denigrated, but has also the right, jurisdiction and authority to protect the High Courts and the subordinate courts from being insulted, abused or in any other way denigrated. All the courts, be they the lower or the highest, function for the noble cause of dispensing justice. Since they have to decide litigation between two contesting parties, it is obvious that they have to have full freedom and independence in settling the disputes and conduct the proceedings therein. Any action on the party of any person or litigant or lawyer, which tends to interfere or obstruct the process of justice, has to be deprecated so that the proceedings may be held in an orderly fashion and everyone who participates in those proceedings may have the feeling of liberty to address the court for proper adjudication of his case.
The judiciary is not only the guardian of the rule of law and third pillar but in fact the central pillar of a democratic State. If the judiciary is to perform its duties with which they are sacredly entrusted on it, the dignity and authority of the courts have to be respected and protected at all costs. Otherwise the very corner-stone of our constitutional scheme will give way and with it will disappear the rule of law and the civilized life in the society.1)
The good faith of the judges is the firm bedrock on which the system of administration of justice rests. Any attempt to shake the confidence of the people, over whom the court has got jurisdiction, is to strike at the very root of democracy, for the people in whose favour a decision of the court is, and also those against whom the decision is, are both alike and equally expected to respect the court. All acts which bring the court into disrespect or disrepute or which offend its dignity, affront its majesty or challenge its authority, certainly amount to contempt of court which tendency must be curbed, by taking resort to contempt proceedings.
Hon’ble Supreme Court has held in the matter of State of Haryana vs Bhajan Lal that the rule of law is the foundational feature of the constitution and the right to obtain judicial redress is a feature of basis structure of the Constitution. It is through the courts that the rule of law reveals its meaningful content. Protection of administration of justice is, therefore, as imperative as its existence for the other civilized functioning of any free and egalitarian social order. The law of contempt secures public respect and confidence in the judicial process and provides the sanction for any act or conduct which is likely to destroy or impair such confidence. In Morris vs The Crown Court2) a group of students from the University of Aberystwyth, by entered the High Court in London, where Lawton, J was hearing an important libel case. They strode into the well of the court; assembled into the public gallery and shouted slogans. They also scattered pamphlets and loudly sang songs. This disturbed the hearing. Consequently, the judge had to adjourn.
Lord Denning, observed— “Here was a deliberate interference with the course of justice in a case which was no concern of theirs. It was necessary for the judge to show – and to show to all students everywhere – that this kind of thing cannot be tolerated. Let students demonstrate, if they please, for the causes in which they believe. Let them make their protests as they will. But they must do it by lawful means and not by unlawful. If they strike at the course of justice, they strike at the roots of society itself, and they bring down that which protects them. It is only by the maintenance of law and order that they are privileged to be students and to study and live in peace. So let them support the law and not strike it down.”
Salmon, LJ said— “Everyone has the right publicly to protest against anything which displeases him and publicly to proclaim his views, whatever they may be. It does not matter whether there is any reasonable basis for his protest or whether his views are sensible or silly. He can say or write or indeed sing what he likes when he likes and where he likes, provided that in doing so, he does not infringe the rights of others.”
Every member of the public has an inalienable right that our courts shall be left free to administer justice without obstruction or interference from whatever quarter it may come. Take away that right and freedom of speech together with all the other freedoms would wither and die, for in the long run it is the courts of justice which are the last bastion of individual liberty. The appellants, rightly or wrongly, think that they have a grievance. They are undoubtedly entitled to protest about it, but certainly not in the fashion they have chosen. In an attempt, and a fairly successful attempt, to gain publicity for their cause, they have chosen to disrupt the business of the courts and have scornfully trampled on the rights which everyone has in the due administration of justice; and for this they have been very properly punished, so that it may be made plain to all that such conduct will not be tolerated – even by students.
It is for this purpose that extraordinary powers are vested for punishing those who indulge in acts, whether inside or outside the courts, which tend to undermine the authority of law and bring it in disrepute and disrespect by scandalizing it. When the court exercises this power, it does not do so to vindicate the dignity and honour of the individual The foundation of the judiciary is the trust and the confidence of the people in its ability to deliver fearless and impartial justice. When the foundation itself is shaken by acts which tend to create disaffection and disrespect for the authority of the court by creating distrust in its wording, the edifice of the judicial system gets eroded. Hence, there is the need of contempt proceeding.
The purpose of the proceedings in Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, is to keep the stream of justice unsullied and to maintain the confidence of the public at large in the fair and impartial administration of justice by the court of law. If anybody wrongly casts aspersions on the impartiality and fair dispensation of justice by a court, he pollutes the purity of that stream and has to be punished. The object of the law of contempt is not vindicate, the prestige, or position of a presiding officer of the court, but to maintain the continuity of the crystal clear flow of the stream of justice.3)
Sunil Sharma is an advocate; editor and compiler of legal commentaries, having authored more than 40 books.