I was watching a routine divorce proceeding in court, when suddenly everyone perked up. The cause of the excitement? The judge ordered that the defendant in the matter be arrested as he failed to comply with court orders -- he was held in contempt of court.
The facts of the matter in this case were simple enough. Anish (name changed), the defendant, owed his wife a year's interim maintenance amounting to about Rs 8 lakh and despite the court ordering him to pay he refused to comply. The court gave him adequate time and opportunities to do so, but he refused to loosen his hold on his purse strings. Finally, he was ordered to pay or face time in jail.
In short he was in contempt of court for refusing to obey and honour the orders of the court.
Legally speaking, contempt of court is of two types:
1. Civil Contempt under Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971: Defined as wilful disobedience to any judgement, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court.
2. Criminal Contempt under Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971: Defined as 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:
i) Scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of any court.
ii) Prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with the due course of any judicial proceedings.
iii) Interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.
Contempt of court also acts a powerful tool against the rich and the powerful... it disabuses them of the notion that they are above the law.
Contempt in simplistic terms means defiance or willful disobedience of the authority, justice and dignity of the court. Contempt of court is an extremely useful and powerful tool and can be brought against the parties to the matter, lawyers, court officers and witnesses. It may also be applied to those protesting against a court order or judgement outside the courtroom - a well known example is activist Arundhati Roy's arrest for protesting outside the courtroom in a judgement of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
A direct contempt of court would essentially mean disobeying orders, causing an embarrassment to the court, refusing to answer questions when on the stand as a witness or not following decorum in the courtroom.
Indirect contempt refers to cases like Arundhati Roy's, meaning "to belittle and degrade the court, its power, its authority and the proceedings".
Contempt of court is a serious offence and it gives the court sweeping powers because it essentially goes to the essence of the judicial system itself.
It is extremely important because what it means is:
1) That you have to respect the authority of the court.
2) You cannot defy court orders of your own free will.
3) It symbolises that the court stands for a legal authority and no one is above the law.
Contempt of Court is succinctly described by the Bench of Hon'ble Jagdish Singh Khehar and Hon'ble K.S Radhakrishnan in the Supreme Court of India in Subrata Roy Sahara versus Union of India:
"Non-compliance of the orders passed by this court shakes the very foundation of the judicial system and undermines the rule of law, which we are bound to honour and protect. This is essential to maintain the faith and confidence of people of this country in the judiciary.
Contempt of court is a serious offence and its invocation bestows power to the litigant too, as he or she can be sure that the order passed by courts will be observed, followed and complied with by the people concerned. In the case I mentioned in the beginning, the husband finally paid his wife what she was due after spending a night in jail for not complying with the court's orders.
Contempt of court also acts a powerful tool against the rich and the powerful as it forces them to obey the orders of the court and disabuses them of the notion that they are above the law. It may not be the correct time to be saying this especially after the divided opinion following Salman Khan's release, but one must not lose hope - as we have seen many times in India, justice in India may be delayed but it is rarely denied.
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