Concerned over growing popular perception about the judges being over-sensitive in contempt matters, the Supreme Court has sounded a note of caution that misuse of contempt jurisdiction could erode the public confidence in the judiciary.
Disapproving of the tendency among judges to treat even technical violations or unintended acts as contempt, a bench headed by Justice R V Raveendran said: “It is possible that it is done to uphold the majesty of courts, and to command respect. But judges, like everyone else, will have to earn respect. They cannot demand respect by demonstration of ‘power’ (of contempt).”
The bench quoted US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, who had warned two centuries ago that “the power of Judiciary lies, not in deciding cases, nor in imposing sentences, nor in punishing for contempt, but in the trust, confidence and faith of the common man.”
It set aside Madhya Pradesh High Court’s order sentencing a police officer to seven-day imprisonment and a fine of Rs 2,000 in a contempt case on the ground that the alleged act of contempt was done bona fide in the course of discharge of his duties and while complying with his superior’s directions.
“This court has repeatedly cautioned that the power to punish for contempt is not intended to be invoked or exercised routinely or mechanically, but with circumspection and restraint.
Laying down norms to deal with contempt cases, the court said: “courts should not readily infer an intention to scandalize courts or lowering the authority of courts unless such intention is clearly established. Nor should they exercise power to punish for contempt where mere question of propriety is involved.”
It said jurisdiction in contempt should not be invoked unless there is a real prejudice, which can be regarded as a substantial interference with the due course of justice.
The court said: “the purpose of the power to punish for criminal contempt is to ensure that the faith and confidence of the public in administration of justice is not eroded. Such power, vested in the High Courts, carries with it great responsibility. Care should be taken to ensure that there is no room for complaints of ostentatious exercise of power.”
It said unintended acts or technical violations should not be treated as contempt, government officials should not be frequently summoned to court to take them to task for “perceived violations” and adverse comments should not be made against those who are not parties to a case.
“It should be remembered that exercise of such power, results in eroding the confidence of the public, rather than creating trust and faith in the judiciary,” it observed.