What is Criminal Contempt?

The contempt law in India is governed by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 (The Act). Sec. 2(c) provides for the definition of criminal contempt as publication (by words (written/spoken) or signs or visible representations or otherwise) which-

i.                   scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower authority of any court, or

ii.                 prejudices or interferes or tends to do so to the due course of any judicial proceedings, or

iii.              Interferes or obstructs or tends to do so with the administration of justice in any other manner.

By virtue of Article 129 and 215 of the Indian Constitution, the Supreme Court and the High Courts, respectively, have the power to punish for their contempt themselves and by virtue of sec. 10 of the Act, the High Courts are empowered to punish contempt of the courts subordinate to them. 


What are the defences available to criminal contempt?

i.                   Sec. 3 of the Act postulates that the person shall not be guilty of contempt if at the time of publication, he/she had no reasonable ground for believing that the proceedings were pending. The publication herein will be described as “innocent” (Prabhakar Laxman Mokashi vs. Sadanand Trimbak Yardi).

ii.                 Sec. 4 of the Act absolves liability if the publication is a fair and accurate report of a judicial proceeding (this defence is subject to sec. 7 of the Act).

iii.              Sec. 5 of the Act absolves the guilt for publishing any fair comment on the merits of any case which has been heard and finally decided. Herein, acknowledging the privileged right of an Indian citizen to speak out his mind and criticize the judiciary, it was reiterated in the case of Sheela Barse v. Union of India, that such right or freedom cannot be exercised during the pendency of such proceedings.

iv.              Sec. 6 of the Act states that a person shall not be guilty if he makes a statement in good faith regarding the presiding officer of any subordinate court to any other subordinate court or the respective High Court.

Herein, truth as a defence (sec.13), apology (proviso to sec. 12-i) and ignorance may be used for defence as well as can serve as a mitigating factor.

For truth as valid defence (sec.13), two conditions need to be satisfied before considering truth as a valid defence – one, that the defence is used in public interest and second, that such request for invoking the defence of truth is bona fide- reiterated in the recent case of Mr. Prashant Bhushan).

For apology as a valid defence, given under proviso to sec. 12(1), the apology should be made to the satisfaction of the court and should look genuine and sincere. If the court considers the apology genuine, then only the accused will be able to use the defence (Pravin C. Shah v. K.A. Mohd. Ali).

Hence, having understood the law on the criminal contempt by way of the Act and relevant case laws, we can appreciate the importance of the defences available to the citizens of the country. There has to be a balance between the right to freedom of speech and need to uphold the sanctity of the courts which the Act aims to achieve in the longer run.




·        The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

·        The Constitution of India.

·        Prabhakar Laxman Mokashi v. Sadanand Trimbak Yardi, 1973 SCC OnLine Bom 79.

·        Sheela Barse v. Union of India, (1988) 4 SCC 226.

·        Prashant Bhushan, In re, (2021) 3 SCC 160.

·        Pravin C. Shah v. K.A. Mohd. Ali(2001) 8 SCC 650.


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