Former Chief Justice of India R.M. Lodha wondered why the Supreme Court moved quickly to hear the suo motu criminal contempt case against noted civil rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan via a virtual court hearing amid a pandemic.
“Heavens were not falling,” Justice Lodha said in a telephonic interview with The Hindu on Friday. The virtual court system initiated to urgently hear and protect personal liberty, was “actually impairing somebody’s liberty,” he said.
“It is really surprising that a matter like this has been taken up during a pandemic and when the court is not having physical hearings. This case could have been taken up as soon as the court resumed physical hearings. This is a little disturbing for me,” the former top judge said.
Mr. Bhushan was convicted of contempt on Friday for two of his tweets in June.
Senior advocate Raju Ramachandran said the court ought to have leaned on the side of freedom of speech. “Considering the contribution which Mr. Bhushan has made in public interest litigation, it is disheartening that the court acted on two tweets which in the very nature of the medium is not capable of nuance,” he said.
Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde noted that the court should also ensure its authority was not further undermined while exercising the power of contempt. “The judgment does not provide a cogent narrative as to how the authority of the court was undermined by just two tweets. Public trust and authority of the court rests on firmer foundation than that.”
The court has scheduled his sentence hearing on August 20.
Justice Lodha said virtual court hearing was not a proper system for delivery of justice in a criminal contempt matter. “A criminal contempt matter is between the court and the contemnor. No third party is involved. So, the contemnor should be fully assured that he is being provided procedural fairness and a full hearing. A virtual court does not meet these parameters. A physical hearing was more assuring than a virtual one,” he said.
On “scandalising of court” as a ground for contempt, Justice Lodha noted that this law, as long as it remained in the country, should not be applied in a routine manner.
“Scandalising the court or lowering the dignity of the court are not stereotype phrases. They are impregnated with a lot of meaning and substance that requires deeper reflection. They should not be applied in a routine manner, or merely because somebody feels that the dignity of an individual has been lowered,” Justice Lodha said.