Contempt and courts

THE LAW OF contempt ought to be invoked extremely sparingly. Contempt laws vest extraordinary powers with courts and are designed to protect the authority and dignity of the court rather than punish those who - technically or otherwise - are perceived as violating the statute. In some democratic countries the courts have virtually given up the power to invoke contempt laws; in the United States, for instance, they are invoked only in extraordinary situations where there is a clear and present danger to justice. In India, judges seem to be much more easily stung by criticism and sometimes do not show the same latitude displayed by their judicial brethren elsewhere. The Delhi High Court's decision holding Wah India, a fortnightly newsmagazine, responsible for prima facie criminal contempt of court is an illustration of this rigid attitude. The Court was apparently scandalised by an article which listed fourteen of its judges and evaluated them on counts of observance of punctuality, knowledge of basic law, reputation for integrity, quality of judgments, manners in court and receptiveness to arguments. The `evaluation' was apparently based on a survey of 50 senior lawyers whose views on the judges were polled by the magazine.

The article could be called into question in terms of both fairness and good taste but the issue is whether it constitutes an attempt to scandalise the Court or lower its authority. Although the article stated its intention was not to cast aspersions on the judiciary but only to ``hold a mirror'' to it, the Delhi High Court took an extremely dim view of the report. It issued (on a criminal contempt petition) a notice against the magazine's Editor-in-Chief and directed the Delhi police to ensure that copies of the allegedly offensive issue were withdrawn from newsstands and other places which sold it. As a result, the magazine's premises were raided and further copies of the issue were seized. In any contempt proceeding of this kind, it is extremely important for the judiciary to balance the right to free expression with the imperative of preserving the dignity of the courts and protecting them from ``scandalisation''. The question is whether the Delhi High Court has (as other Indian courts have from time to time) been much too easily scandalised. It is worth observing here that in Britain no one has succeeded in pressing the ``scandalising the court'' charge for reportedly as much as seven decades; so much so, it is virtually an irrelevancy in British discussions of the law of contempt.

The concept of criminal contempt has complex ramifications, which stem partly from the very ambiguity of its definition. There are no settled or objective criteria of what kind of behaviour or action may scandalise a court. For that matter, it is also difficult to spell out what exactly constitutes an interference with the administration of justice - another cause of action for criminal contempt. Contempt laws permit a person to be punished even if the criticism he levels against the judiciary is true. Another remarkable feature about contempt proceedings is that the judge and the prosecutor are the very same. While it is arguable that some kind of contempt sanctions are required to preserve the authority of the courts, the broad powers to punish under these laws should not be used to deter legitimate criticism or comment about the judiciary. The judiciary is obliged to display a degree of restraint and balance in contempt cases. The Delhi High Court failed to do so in the Wah India case, raids on the magazine office and gag orders being too high a price to pay for the supposed upholding of judicial dignity.

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