What is the law on contempt of court and requirement of Attorney General’s consent to initiate the process of contempt?
12/06/2021

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About the News: Attorney General of India K K Venugopal on Tuesday granted consent to initiate criminal contempt of court proceedings against Cartoonist Rachita Taneja for allegedly scandalising the judiciary through her tweets and illustrations.

What is contempt of court?

  1. Contempt of Court refers to the offence of showing disrespect to the dignity or authority of a court.
  2. The objective for contempt is stated to be to safeguard the interests of the public if the authority of the Court is denigrated and public confidence in the administration of justice is weakened or eroded.

 

Article 129 and 215 of the Constitution of India empowers the Supreme Court and High Court respectively to punish people for their respective contempt. But subordinate courts don’t have power of contempt.

 
As a result contempt of court Act, 1971 was enacted by the Indian parliament.
According to the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, contempt of court can either be civil contempt or criminal contempt.

  1. Civil contempt means wilful disobedience of any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court, or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court.
  2. Criminal contempt, on the other hand, is attracted by the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which:
  1. scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or
  2. prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or
  3. Interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.

 
Is a fair 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.
  • In 2006, the government brought in an amendment, which now provides “truth” as defence provided it is bona fide and in public interest.

 
 What is the procedure for bringing a criminal contempt of court case against an individual?
Section 15 of the l The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 describes the procedure on how a case for contempt of court can be initiated.

  1.  In the case of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General or the Solicitor General

 in the case of High Courts, the Advocate General, may bring in a motion before the court for initiating a case of criminal contempt.

  1. However, if the motion is brought by any other person, the consent in writing of the Attorney General or the Advocate General is required. The motion or reference made for initiating the case will have to specify the contempt of which the person charged is alleged to be guilty.

But why does the Attorney General have to grant consent?
The objective behind requiring the consent of the Attorney General before taking cognizance of a complaint is to save the time of the court. The AG’s consent is meant that He is first safeguard against frivolous petitions and the court is the first forum for bringing them in.
Therefore, AG, as an officer of the court, will independently ascertain whether the complaint is indeed valid.
 
Is the AG’s consent mandatory for all contempt of court cases?

In case of contempt, Court may take action –

(a) Suo motu, or
(b) On a petition made by Attorney­ General, or Solicitor General, or
(c) On a petition made by any person and in the case of a criminal contempt with the consent in writing of the Attorney ­General or the Solicitor­ General.”
Therefore, The AG’s consent is mandatory when a private citizen wants to initiate a case of contempt of court against a person.
Before such a plea can be filed, the Attorney General must, determining if it requires the attention of the court at all sign off on the complaint
 However, Court can take ‘suo motu’ action and  when the court itself initiates a contempt of court case, as it did in the case of Prashant Bhushan recently, the AG’s consent is not required.

 

 

Article 129 of the Constitution gives the Supreme Court the power to initiate contempt cases on its own, independent of the motion brought before it by the AG or with the consent of the AG.
As article 129 states “The Supreme Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself,”

 
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.
 

 

The Supreme Court in Bal Thackrey vs Harish Pimpalkhute case wherein it was indicated that Supreme Court could have taken suo motu, even without the consent of the Attorney General, but that such a recourse should be confined to rare occasions only.

 
What happens if the AG denies consent?
If the AG denies consent, the matter ends
As, Last week, he turned down a request to initiate contempt proceedings against author Shefali Vaidya as the tweets were made over a year ago.
Note: The law has a limitation period of one year for bringing in action against an individual.

 

 

According to THE CONTEMPT OF COURTS ACT, 1971: No court shall initiate any proceedings of contempt, either on its own motion or otherwise, after the expiry of a period of one year from the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed.

 
What happens after the AG has granted consent?

  1. Once the consent of the Attorney General 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.
  2. If the court decides not to serve the notice personally, the law requires the court to record the reasons for it.
  3. 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.
  4. Once the notice is served, the alleged contemnor may file an affidavit in support of his defence, explaining the nature and circumstances of his remarks.

Note: The case is required under the Act to be heard by a Bench of at least two judges. The court then takes into account any evidence available to check the affidavit, and pass appropriate orders.
 
https://doj.gov.in/sites/default/files/contempt.pdf
https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/consent-for-contempt-attorney-general-for-india-k-k-venugopal-rachita-taneja/
https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-contempt-of-court-attorney-general-7049560/

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