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‘Don’t use contempt power mechanically’

Legal Correspondent

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has cautioned the High Courts against exercising routinely or mechanically the power to punish for contempt. Judges must earn respect through their deeds and cannot demand respect by demonstration of “power.”

A Bench, comprising Justices R.V. Raveendran and Lokeshwar Singh Panta, said courts should not readily infer an intention to scandalise or lower their authority unless it was clearly established. “Nor should they exercise power to punish for contempt where a mere question of propriety is involved.”

“Over-sensitiveness”

The Bench said, “Contempt jurisdiction is not to be invoked unless there is real prejudice, which can be regarded as a substantial interference with the due course of justice. Of late, a perception slowly gaining ground among the public is that sometimes some judges are showing over-sensitiveness with a tendency to treat even technical violations or unintended acts as contempt. It is possible that it is done to uphold the majesty of the courts, and to command respect. But, judges, like everyone else, will have to earn respect. They cannot demand respect.”

Writing the judgment, Mr. Justice Raveendran said: “Nearly two centuries ago, Justice John Marshall, Chief Justice of the American Supreme Court, warned that the power of the 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. The purpose of the power to punish for criminal contempt is to ensure that the faith and confidence of the public in the 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.”

Unintended acts

The Bench said, “Three acts which are often cited as examples of exercise of such power are: punishing persons for unintended acts or technical violations by treating them as contempt of court; frequent summoning of government officers to court [to sermonise or take them to task for perceived violations], and making avoidable adverse comments and observations against persons who are not parties. 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.”

In the instant case, Rajesh Kumar Singh, who was sub-divisional police officer in Dabra, Gwalior district, during 1998-99 was punished by the Madhya Pradesh High Court for contempt with seven-day simple imprisonment and a Rs. 2,000-fine for shielding a police officer in an inquiry.

Allowing his appeal against this order, the Bench said the High Court’s assumption that the entire inquiry by the appellant was to help police officer Raghuvanshi was erroneous. His report was bona fide and not intended to sca ndalise the court. “Any bona fide act in the course of discharge of duties and complying with the directions of the superior officers should not land the inquiry officer in contempt proceedings."

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