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Contempt Of Court?

One of the best things about having an organized judicial system is that there is always a way for citizens to achieve justice when they are wronged. Instead, when courts are taken for granted, we have miscarriage of justice

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Humans create laws to govern all and sundry including humans. Those in power or those who can influence communities lead this process. They however, are expected to lead by the best tenets of human living. Though law is a system of rules, which a particular country or community recognizes, as regulating the actions of its members and which it may enforce by the imposition of penalties, the philosophy of law is based on jurisprudence. Normative jurisprudence asks "what should law be?", while analytical jurisprudence asks "what is law?" Both these questions need credible answers in current times since people with different ideologies and belonging to different social milieu are constantly challenging, disrupting and reinterpreting the analytical jurisprudence. The crux of the problem lies in what Louis D Brandeis, an American lawyer and associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States said “If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable”.  

It is also a matter of concern that our laws have evolved with the premise that everyone would break them. Laws help regulate and ensure, that communities show respect and equality amongst themselves. In such a context, if the law makers openly profess disrespect to the judicial systems or its pronouncements, arrived at after a long and arduous procedure of collecting evidence, a logical interpretation of the constitutional provisions and expounding a set of conditions, only because the outcomes are not palatable, then where does it leave the community? The case in point is that of a recent Sabarimala verdict that was a simple case of interpreting equality of gender under the constitution. Having let the case be settled within the precincts of law, what is the point in rejecting the outcome on the basis of faith and practice? If faith were the only consideration, why seek a settlement in the Court? Can a law maker seek solace under the ambit of law and if the outcome is contrary to the expectations, can he then invoke faith and drive people to a frenzy? Can any means meet the ends? Does it not amount to contempt? Even at the expense of being accused of a contrived thought process, is it not true that one should never be brought to the court, if one were to not see being acquitted?   

Contempt of court, which is also known as contemptuous curiae has been in use since centuries and it is old as the law is. The law relating to contempt of court, civil or criminal, has developed over the centuries as the medium, whereby the courts may punish the act of humiliating or lowering the court’s dignity. When one cocks-a-snook at the law, defies the authority, trivialises justice and dignity of the court or is disobedient to or discourteous toward a court of law and its officers should the Courts not intervene? Lord Diplock a Baron and a British Judge, has an interesting take on contempt of court and he observes, “Although criminal contempt of court may take variety of forms, they all share a common characteristic. They involve an interference with the due administration of justice, either in a particular case or more generally as a continuing process. It is the justice itself that is flouted by contempt of court, not the individual court or judge”. The government, the biggest litigator in the country, faces 369 contempt cases across courts, a Law ministry document of 2017 states. Is this a routine affair, or a lack of sensitivity?

It certainly is not open to any individual, group, or a political party to subvert the due constitutional process by threatening street action or adverse political action by the Union executive. It is interesting to see how the powers that be, including the highest court of the land reacts to the representation, by close to 50 retired Indian Administrative Service and Indian Foreign Service officers, made to the Election Commission and the Supreme Court.  Reasons are not hard to find, as to why the issue has come to such a pass. Some pointers amongst many, is when the powers be, including the Courts, turned a blind eye to several instances of contempt, as in Jallikattu demonstration or when the effigies of Justices were burnt in another case, when results were contrary to what was anticipated?

A second conflict with the judiciary is brewing and probably just round the corner. All believers and Hindus would most certainly want a temple to be built to the Lord of their dreams at a place which they consider sacrosanct. A very contentious case, it has been hanging fire, for more than half a century of years now. ASI excavations and various reports notwithstanding, the case has dragged on, not benefitting the protagonists nor the antagonists. Is it really justified, if the courts were to be blamed for the delays in meting justice? If that were the argument, would it not amount to contempt again? Several legislators and even elders from the upper house, have been chorusing eloquent, “Justice delayed is justice denied”. Does this not apply to the entire justice system end to end? When ordinary individuals languish and die in our ill kept jails as under-trials without a hearing, would we have the same temerity and exalted understanding to accuse our courts being responsible for the delays? Whenever the case comes to a conclusion and God forbid, the result were to be the contrary, will the elected representatives accuse the courts of bias and get away? Or would they drive the people crazy and create a law and order problem that would be extremely difficult to extinguish? If the law makers were to turn law breakers ushering in a reign of jungle raj, people would be maimed. Even the jurisprudence would come to a grinding halt. 

One of the best things about having an organized judicial system is that there is always a way for citizens to achieve justice when they are wronged. Instead, when courts are taken for granted, we have miscarriage of justice. Food for thought: When a Judge sends an attorney to jail after finding his client guilty of drug charges as happened in Georgia, one is left to wonder, whose contempt and whose punishment?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Dr. S.S. Mantha

Former Chairman of AICTE, Dr. Mantha is an eminent academician. At present he is the Adjunct Professor at NIAS, Bangalore.

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