There is no doubt that the Court like any other institution does not enjoy immunity from fair criticism. No Court can claim to be always right although it does not spare any effort to be right according to the best of the ability, knowledge and judgment of the Judges. They do not think themselves to be in possession of all truth to hold that wherever others differ from them are in error. No one is more conscious of his limitations and fallibility than a Judge. But because of his training and the assistance he gets from learned counsel he is apt to avoid mistakes more than others. While fair and temperate criticism of the Court even if strong, may not be actionable, but attributing improper motives or tending to bring Judges or Courts into hatred and contempt or obstructing directly or indirectly with the functioning of Courts is serious contempt of which notice must be and will be taken. Respect is expected not only from those to whom the judgment of the Court is acceptable but also from those to whom it is repugnant. Those who err in their criticism by indulging in vilification of the institution of Court, administration of justice and the instruments through which the administration acts, should take heed for they will act at their own peril. To similar effect were the observations of Hidayatullah, C.J., (as the learned judge was then) in R.C. Cooper v. Union of India (AIR 1970 SC 1318).
Lord Russel of Killowen, L.C. J, has laid down in Reg v. Gray 1900(2) QB 36 at 40 as follows:
“Judges and Courts are alike open to criticism and if reasonable argument or expostulation is offered against any judicial act as contrary to law or public good, no Court could or would treat that as contempt of Court”. Indeed, Section 5 of the Act now provides that a person shall not be guilty of contempt of Court for publishing any fair comment on the merits of any case which has been heard and finally decided. But, if such a defence is taken, it is always open to test whether the publication alleged to be offending was by way of fair comment on the merits of the case or was personal scurrilous abuse of a Judge as a Judge, for abuse of a Judge or a Court or attacks on the personal character of a Judge are clearly punishable contempt. As stated in para 2 at page 21 of Volume-9 of Halsbury’s Laws of England; Fourth Edition, “The punishment is inflicted, not for the purpose of protecting either the Court as a whole or the individual Judges of the Court from a repetition of the attack, but of protecting the public, and specially those who either voluntarily or by compulsion are subject to the jurisdiction of the Court, from the mischief they will incur if the authority of the tribunal is undermined or impaired.”
The above proposition has been approved and followed by Lord Atkin in Andrew Paul Terence Ambrad v. The Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago, (AIR 1936 PC 141). It was observed as follows:
“No wrong is committed by any member of the public who exercised the ordinary right of criticism in good faith in private or public the public act done in the seat of justice. The path of criticism is public way, the wrong-headed are permitted to err therein, provided that members of the public abstain from imputing improper motives to those taking part in the administration of justice and are genuinely exercising a right of criticism and not acting in malice or attempting to impart the administration of Justice, they are immune. Justice is not a cloistered virtue; she must be allowed to suffer the scrutiny and respectful even though outspoken comments of ordinary men”:
Lord Justice Donovan in Attorney General v. Butterworth: 1963(1) QB 696 after making reference to Req. V. Odham’s Press Ltd ex parte A.G.: 1957(1) QB 73 said: “Whether or not there was an intention to interfere with the administration of justice is relevant to penalty not to quit”. This makes it clear that an intention to interfere with the proper administration of justice is an essential ingredient of the offence of contempt of court and it is enough if the action complained of is inherently likely so to interfere. In Morris v. Crown Office: 1970(1) All E.R. 1079 page 1081, Lord Denning M.R. said: that the course of justice must not be deflected or interfered with. Those who do it strike at the very foundations of our society. In the same case, Lord Justice Solmon spoke:
“The sole purpose of proceedings for contempt1 is to give our courts the power effectively to protect the rights of the public by ensuring that the administration of justice shall not be obstructed or prevented.”
The right to criticize an opinion of a court, to take issue with it upon its conclusions as to a legal proposition, or question its conception of the facts, so long as such criticisms are made in good faith and are in ordinarily decent and respectful language and are not designed to willfully or maliciously misrepresent the position of the Court, or tend to bring it into disrespect, or lessen the respect due to the authority to which a Court is entitled, cannot be questioned. The right to free speech is one of the greatest guarantee to liberty in a free country like ours, even though that right is frequently and in many instances outrageously abused. If any considerable portion of a community is led to believe that either because of gross ignorance of the law or because of a wrong reason, it cannot rely upon the courts to administer justice that portion of the community, upon some occasion, is very likely to come to the conclusion that it is better not to take any chances on the courts failing to do their duty.
The judiciary is the bedrock and handmaid of democracy. If people lose faith in justice parted by a Court of law, the entire democratic setup would crumble down. In this background, observations of Lord Denning M.R. in Metropolitan Properties Ltd. v. Lennon (1968) 3 All E.R. 304 are relevant: “Justice must be rooted in confidence, and confidence is destroyed when right-minded people go away thinking – the Judge is based.”
- In the case of Brahma Prakash Sharma and others v. The State of Uttar Pradesh: (AIR 1954 SC 10) this Court after referring to various decisions of the foreign countries as well as of the Privy Council stated thus:
“It will be an injury to the public if it tends to create an apprehension in the minds of the people regarding the integrity, ability or fairness of the Judge or to deter actual and prospective litigants from placing complete reliance upon the Court’s administration of justice, or if it is likely to cause embarrassment in the mind of the Judge himself in the discharge of his judicial duties. It is well established that it is not necessary to prove affirmative that there has been an actual interference with the administration of justice by reason of such defamatory statement; it is enough if it is likely or tends in any way to interfere with the proper administration of law.”
What is contempt of Court has been stated in lucid terms by Oswald in Classic “Book on Contempt of Court”. It is said: “To speak generally, contempt of court may be said to be constituted by any conduct that tends to bring the authority and demonstration of law into disrespect and disregard or to interfere with or prejudice parties, litigant or their witnesses during the litigation.”
“Contempt in the legal acceptance of the term, primarily signifies disrespect to that which is entitled to legal regard, but as a wrong purely moral or affecting an object not possessing a legal status, it has in the eye of the law no existence. In its origin all legal contempt will be found to consist in an offence more or less direct against the sovereign himself as the fountainhead of law and justice or against his palace where justice was administered. This clearly appears from old cases.” ↩︎