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Law Commission says no changes to dreaded contempt of court law

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Concerns have often been raised about the misuse of the act in criminal contempt cases, but the commission says there are enough safeguards built into the law.

New Delhi: The Law Commission has recommended that there is no need to amend India’s dreaded contempt of court law.

In a report to the government, the commission has said amending the act would “lessen the respect” for India’s judiciary.

“The law for contempt, with power of imposing punishment, ensures respect for the courts in the eyes of the public by guaranteeing sanction against conduct which might assail the honour of the courts. Indeed, the courts must be able to discharge their functions without fear or favour,” the report said.

Given the widespread use of the law, the commission is of the opinion that the crime of ‘scandalising the court’ should continue to exist in India, even though it acts as a chilling deterrent on criticising the courts.

Last month, the government had asked the commission to examine if the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, can be amended so as to restrict it only to civil contempt, and not criminal contempt.

What triggered the rethink

According to the law, contempt in India is divided into civil and criminal contempt. While civil contempt is applicable when a person wilfully disobeys any order of a court, criminal contempt entails ‘interfering’ with the administration of justice – for instance, interrupting a court hearing by singing obnoxiously or ‘scandalising’ the court or ‘lowering its authority’.

It was the provision of ‘scandalising’ the court that was being examined by the commission in the report.

The issue was referred to the commission by the government in the light of Britain – from whom India inherited the law – recommending in 2012 “that scandalising the court should cease to exist as an offence or as a form of contempt”.

However, the Law Commission concluded that in Britain, the provision was not used after 1930, making the law redundant, the official said. In India, on the other hand, the number of pending criminal cases under the contempt of court act runs into thousands, with the Odisha High Court alone having as many as 104 criminal cases as on 30 June 2017.

Between 1 July 2016 and 30 June 2017, there were as many as 568 criminal contempt cases pending in high courts across the country.

There are enough safeguards

The widespread and often arbitrary use of contempt proceedings has been a major criticism of the act. Given that courts in India can simply respond to criticism with the threat of contempt proceedings is what is problematic, a senior advocate said.

“The judges basically have the right to make a criminal case against someone who just irritates them,” the advocate said.

However, the report says that there are adequate safeguards within the law to ensure it is not misused.

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