On 2nd June 2021, the Delhi High Court was hearing a petition filed by popular Bollywood actor and environmentalist, Juhi Chawla against the implementation of 5G in India. According to NDTV, the petition was filed on the grounds that 5G could have serious and irreversible effects on people, and cause permanent damage to the environment.
However, things took a different turn as the Delhi High Court ordered a case of contempt against a fan for singing songs from the actor’s hit movies. When the hearing began, a person could be heard asking, “Where is Juhi ma’am. I can’t see Juhi ma’am”.
Senior Advocate Deepak Khosla, appearing for Mrs. Chawla jokingly remarked, “I hope these are not distractions from the respondents”.
Despite multiple attempts to mute and remove the person, the singing and interruptions did not stop. Justice JR Midha ordered the issuance of contempt of Court against this person. The person was said to be identified with the help of the Delhi Police IT Department, after which the contempt order was issued against them.
Interestingly, it was later found that the fan had entered the hearing, after Mrs. Chawla shared a link to the hearing on Twitter and Instagram, inviting people to join the hearing.
Cases of contempt are relatively common in India, and this news happened to catch the media’s attention due to the popularity of it. In this article, we discuss contempt law with respect to this case, with a brief critical analysis of the same.
Introduction to Contempt Law
Contempt of courts’ law in India is governed by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 (hereinafter referred to as “the Act”). The Act was introduced with an aim to define and limit the powers of Indian Courts to punish contempt, and to regulate its procedure.
Under Section 2 of the Act, contempt includes the following:
- Civil contempt: It refers to the wilful disobedience to any order of the Court, or wilful breach of an undertaking given to the Court.
- Criminal contempt: It refers to the publication, in any form, that:
- Scandalises or lowers the authority of the Court.
- Interferes with the due course of a judicial proceeding.
- Interferes with or obstructs the administration of justice in any manner.
Civil contempt has been clearly defined as the wilful disobedience of any “judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process” of a Court, and the wilful breach of an undertaking given to a Court. The breach of an undertaking given to the Court in civil proceedings, on the faith on which the Court passes any order, would be a gross misconduct, giving rise to a contempt of Court.
In Amar Bahadur Singh v. P.D. Wasnik and Ors., the Court laid down that in order to constitute a civil contempt, the act done must have been done wilfully, deliberately, and in disregard to the Court’s order.
The Karnataka High Court observed that civil contempt does not include just disobedience but also a breach of the Court order. The Hon’ble Court took cognizance of the fact that an order of a Court must be obeyed unless it has been explicitly set aside through an appeal or revision. In Ashok Paper Kamgar Union and Ors. v. Dharam Godha and Ors., the Supreme Court examined the extent of civil contempt. With respect to any “wilful” act done, the Court observed that it must have been done voluntarily with an intention to commit a forbidden act or omit an act.
Under the Act, the following constitute criminal contempt:
- Publication of matter:
In general sense, publication refers to the issuing of any material for public view. On these lines, the Act qualifies publication as the act of publishing something by spoken or written words, or by signs, or by visual representation, or otherwise. The broadcasting of this material can be done through magazines, newspapers, radio, movies and theatres. In most recent times, social media and the internet has played a major role in this.
To constitute a criminal contempt, such publication must:
- Scandalise or lower the authority of the Court –
With respect to contempt, scandalising involves an attack on Judges or the Court using unwarranted or defamatory publications. Such act would amount to attempt as it creates a feeling of distrust among the minds of the people, and shatters the image of the Judiciary.
In its landmark judgement, the Supreme Court narrowed down the scope of Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution stating that any criticism that undermines the conduct of the Court would not fall under the ambit of freedom of speech. Further, filing a false affidavit before the Court to intentionally mislead them amounts to criminal contempt.
- Be prejudicial or interfere with the course of judicial proceedings –
Any action that prejudices or interferes with the judicial proceedings would amount to criminal contempt. This also includes media trial – Indian newspapers and TV channels have been accused of media trials that have disrupted the due course of proceedings.
Following the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput in 2020, the Bombay High Court pulled up recordings of TV channels, including Republic TV and Times Now for conducting media trials that had reportedly hindered the on-going investigation of the actor’s death. The Court rightly noted that, “any reportage has to be in accordance with the norms of journalistic standards and ethics, else media houses stand to face contempt action”.
Such incidents are unfortunately common in our country, and therefore, contempt law against these actions had to be brought up. The Act makes it clear that the intention and motive behind such acts are not relevant; as long as a reasonable knowledge of pendency of the case exists, and such act interferes with the proceedings, it would be enough to constitute criminal contempt.
- Interference with or obstruct the administration of justice –
Administration of justice is a wider process that begins at the filing of an application before the Court, and ends till the case has been put to rest. In the context of the Act, obstructing the administration of justice would amount to criminal contempt. For instance, preventing an individual from approaching the Court either by use of threat or coercion or other means.
In J.R. Parashar v. Prashant Bhushan, the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that mere holding of a dharna would not amount to contempt but in the course of such dharna, if any officer of the Court or a Judge or related personnel are prevented from approaching the Court, it would amount to contempt as it interferes with and obstructs the administration of justice by the Courts. Further, making libellous statements against the sitting Judges of a High Court were held to be obstructive of the administration of justice in Pritam Lal v. High Court of M.P..
Now that a brief introduction has been given to contempt law, the following section of this article aims to draw a symbiotic relationship between the law and the present case.
Contempt of Court: Juhi Chawla Case Study
In India, news about celebrities and people of high status spreads faster than news of national distress, and the Juhi Chawla case is just one among them. The case gained enough media publicity that the Court, in fact, dismissed the case citing that “the suit was filed for publicity”, and subsequently fined Mrs. Chawla of Rs.20 lakh for abuse of the process of law.
There have been numerous scenarios of contempt in India, especially those which have been confused with freedom of speech and expression. One can share a few laughs regarding this particular case, but the concerns are of far more importance.
The brief facts of this case have already been discussed in the above sections. This particular section shall deal with the contempt laws that would apply to the case.
On the day of the hearing, Mrs. Chawla shared the link of the hearing on her Twitter and Instagram accounts. When someone of a high stature in society, and large following on social media, the fans’ and the general public’s attention will be drawn towards it – which is what happened in this case. Anonymous people joined the hearing, and what transpired were a series of disturbances and interferences as fans began to sing songs and call out Mrs. Chawla’s name.
Justice Midha ordered a contempt of Court case against the fan, whose identity remains unknown to the public. Now, the facts of this contempt case have not yet been revealed but with a general understanding of the contempt laws, it can be said that this is a clear case of criminal contempt. What transpired during the hearing were a series of disruptions, that hindered the sitting Judge from disposing the case in a proper and convenient manner.
The foremost requisite to constitute criminal contempt is a “publication”. In the present case, the publications are the songs that were sung during the Court hearing, and the consistent calling out of Mrs. Chawla’s names. Further, such acts had prejudiced and interfered with the due course of the case hearing.
According to the Courtroom proceedings, one must maintain silence, and must only speak when allowed to by the Judge; this condition especially applies to spectators and external parties not involved in the case. In this present case, a fan interfering and bursting into song in the middle of the proceeding, is a gross violation of the conduct of the Court, and would seriously amount to contempt under Section 2(c).
Further, the fact that Mrs. Chawla had voluntarily shared the link of the hearing on her social media pages attracted unnecessary attention to the proceeding, and obstructed and interfered with the administration of justice. The hearing of the case was held for and between the parties, and with sitting Judge and Court officers.
Mrs. Chawla too violated the Court’s conduct by publicly sharing the link of the hearing, which is why the Court dismissed the case citing that the suit was filed to gain publicity. The Court which pronounced its holding that Mrs. Chawla and two others had abused and misused the process of law, and wasted the Court’s time.
The defence in cases of contempt of Court shall only lie where the defendant had reasonable grounds to believe that the suit was not pending before the Court. In the present case, the defendant made such publications, i.e., singing, with the full knowledge that a proceeding was underway.
For the offence of contempt, Section 12 provides for imprisonment of 6 months, or fine of Rs.2,000, or of both. If the Court is satisfied, the person can also be released on an apology.
The provisions relating to the contempt of Court in the present case has been briefly deal with in this section. The following section shall contain a comprehensive analysis of the same, with some critical points.
The first and foremost question that would arise in a contempt case is whether it is a civil or criminal contempt. The law has drawn a broad line of difference between the two, and Courts have taken their stance on this matter.
In Dulal Chandra v. Sukumar, the Court made the observation that that difference between civil and criminal contempt is broad but also thin. If the contempt arises due to failure of a party to comply with the orders of a Court, it will constitute civil contempt, as there is no criminality in the disobedience. However, if the party acts in defiance and disobedience of the Court’s orders, conducting themselves in a manner that obstructs or interferes with the course and administration of justice, the contempt would be a mix of both: civil between them and the opposing party, and criminal between them and the Court/State. A similar stance was held in the United Mine Workers’ case that the same conduct could constitute both a civil and a criminal contempt.
Now to understand whether the singing of a Court constitutes contempt, the Court broadly classified in the Stone case that disturbances and interruptions in Court while in sitting would amount to criminal contempt. Further, interfering with the parties, and other persons attending the Court is also contempt.
In the present case, the fan began singing songs after the Court proceedings began, and when the parties were arguing their case. Further, the fan interrupted the proceedings by calling out Mrs. Chawla’s fan, who is one of the petitioners in this case. Giving due regard to the law and the various precents laid above, it can be concluded that the offence in this present case is one of contempt, specifically criminal contempt.
According to Section 3 of the Act, the party being charged with contempt does have the defence of holding that they were innocent. The Courts can take cognizance of this matter, and a discretion lies on them to decide whether an act amounts to contempt.
For instance, it was observed that it would not constitute contempt if the disobedience were unintentional or accidental. Applying this judgement to the present case, it is quite obvious that the singing was not “unintentional” nor “accidental”, as the fan specifically sang Mrs. Chawla’s movie songs, and continuously called out her name. Further, the act did not happen just once, but thrice, and nothing of this nature can be held as unintentional or accidental.
As mentioned in the previous section, a party, if convicted, is liable to certain punishment under the Act. The Courts, however, have the power to reduce or remove the sentence where the party gives an apology to the Court’s satisfaction. The Courts have taken up the authority and exercises discretion to the extent of this apology through its judgements.
The apology must be sincere and unconditional. A mere “I am extremely sorry” is a statement of regret but not an apology considered under the Act. Further, a genuine and prompt, as an apology not made in time would lose its value. However, the Court cannot reject an apology merely because it was conditional if the accused makes it bona fide. The final power rests with the Court to accept/reject an apology depending on its satisfaction.
Contempt of Court cases cannot be confined to one particular law or judgement. It is a vast subject that differs from case to case. Virtual hearings are a new concept in India given the tough times people are in, and monitoring them is a task. There is indeed a lot of scope for people to misuse virtual hearings, and India is just in its nascent stage in this matter. What the Courts need are up-to-date laws that also govern virtual hearings, and a robust system that can better monitor contempt and other acts in such hearings.
Conclusion & Suggestions
Contempt laws in India have played an important role in the prevention of abuse of the judicial system. The law is necessary to hold abusers of the Court accountable and liable for their actions. Wilful disobedience of the Court, and interference with proceedings are acts which would lower the authority of the Court, and as a citizen, one must ensure that such acts are not committed.
However, there is a topic regarding contempt that is debated on by scholars: curbing of freedom of speech. Many scholars and legal professionals believe that this law curbs the freedom of speech and expression available to citizens under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. For this purpose, advocates have pushed for the complete removal of this statute citing that it “violates freedom of speech, and is manifestly arbitrary”. Whether the law needs to be removed is a topic for another day but surely reforms need to be brought in to prevent the abuse of the law in such a way that even a slightest remark about the Courts are construed as contempt.
Further, the current law does not govern a new method of hearing, i.e., virtual hearing. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed most activities to online modes, including Court proceedings. Now, the current law does not make mention of contempt in virtual hearings as it a fairly new concept. To deal with issues such as the one faced in the Juhi Chawla case, additional laws that govern the presence of external parties in Court hearings, and the method of monitoring such sessions need to be included.
Indian laws are far behind time as laws that were made pre-independence still continue to exist today. New and improved laws that adapt to the growing times need to be brought in, as out-dated laws only tend to lower the confidence of citizens in the judicial system. Contempt laws too require to be adapted to the current times as India is a dynamic country. Freedom of speech and expression deserves to be granted to every citizen which is why it is a fundamental right. It is no question that this right needs to have its reasonable restrictions but at the same time, Courts and States must prevent the abuse of this law by charging anyone that speaks against the system.
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 Noorali Babul Thanewala v. K.M.M. Shetty, AIR 1990 SC 464.
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 United Mine Workers’ case, 330 US 258 (1947).
 Stone case, (1796) 6 Term Rep 527.
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 Supra note 16.
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Author: Madhumitha R from SLS, Hyderabad.