What Does Contempt Of Court Mean?

contempt of court

Referred as simply “contempt”, contempt of court is an offense of being disrespectful or disobedience to a court and its officials in the form of behavior that defies authority, justice and dignity of the court.[1] It is an act of disrespect towards a judge or the officers of the court or interfering with the judicial process. Anything that restricts or hinders the freedom of the boundary of the lawsuit must necessarily lead to the obstruction of law administration and the interference of the right career.

Oswald defines “contempt for being composed of any act that attempts to disrespect the authority and administration of law, to interfere with or prejudice or disrespect their parties or witnesses during litigation.”[2] Halsbury defines “contempt as consisting of words written or spoken that obstruct or tend to the administration of justice.”[3] Black Odgers argues that it is the court’s contempt to publish words that tend to despise the administration of justice, to prejudice the fair trial of any matter or matter undertaking the civil or criminal process, or to the cause of justice.[4]

When a court decides that action constitutes contempt of court, it may issue an order declaring, in the context of a court hearing, that a person or organization is disobedient or disrespectful of the competence of the court,”called” or “held”in contempt. Sanctions are imposed for acts which disrupt the normal process of the court by the contempt of court and this powerful action is levied by the judge.

A finding that a contempt of court may be the result of a failure to comply with a lawful order of a court, ungratefulness to the judge, disruption of the proceedings through misconduct, or publication of material or non-disclosure of material, which it is therefore likely to call for a fair hearing. A judge can impose sanctions such as a fine or jail time for someone convicted of contempt of court, turning contempt of court into a procedural crime. Judges in common law systems generally have a broader power to declare contempt than judges in civil justice systems.

Contempt under Indian statute

Section 2(a) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971 categorizes contempt of court as civil or criminal contempt. Civil contempt is defined under clause (b) of this section of the Act, which states it as “willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other processes of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court.

On the other hand, clause (c) defines Criminal contempt as “the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which:(i) Scandalises or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court, or (ii) Prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with the due course of any judicial proceeding, or(iii) Interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.”

Types and essentials of contempt

According to Lord Hardwick, there is a threefold classification of contempt:

  • Scan the court itself.
  • Abuse of parties involved in the case, in the presence of the court.
  • Prejudice the public before addressing the matter.

The elements that are usually needed to bring about contempt are:

  • making a valid court order,
  • knowledge of the order by the respondent,
  • the respondent’s ability to provide compliance, and
  • Willful disobedience to the order.


It is generally felt that the existing law regarding contempt of courts is somewhat uncertain, undefined and unsatisfactory. The jurisdiction to punish for contempt affects two important fundamental rights of citizens, namely the right to personal freedom and the right to freedom of expression. It is therefore considered advisable to have the full legislation on the subject examined by a special committee.

Following this, a committee was formed in 1961 chaired by the late H N Sanyal, the then Additional Attorney General. The committee conducted an extensive investigation into the law and issues of contempt of court in light of the position obtained in our own country and in various foreign countries. The recommendations made by the committee noted the importance given to freedom of speech in the Constitution and the need to protect the status and dignity of courts and the interests of justice.

The committee’s recommendations were generally accepted by the government, in the view expressed by the recommendations of state governments, Union Territory administrations, the Supreme Court, the High Courts, and the Judicial Commissioners.


A case of contempt is C.K. Daphtaryv. O. P. Gupta[5], the respondent published and distributed a booklet that allegedly attributed prejudice and dishonesty to Justice Shah while acting in his judicial capacity. Mr. C.K. Daphtary, along with others, filed a petition claiming that the booklet scanned the judges who participated in the ruling and scorned the authority of the country’s highest court, thereby weakening the confidence of the people in it. The Supreme Court, in examining the extent of the contempt of court, ruled that the test in each case is whether the disputed publication is a mere defamatory attack on the judge or whether it will be the proper career or the proper administration interference of law by the court.

A third party to the lawsuit can plead guilty to contempt of court if they play a role in the offense. In LED Builders Pty Ltd v Eagles Homes Pty Ltd[6], Lindgren J said:“It is not necessary to show that a person who helped the contempt of court get a contempt of court and came along with it was served with the breach of the order.”


The limitation period for contempt actions has been discussed under Section 20 of the 1971 Contempt Act and has a one-year period from the date on which the contempt is presumed to have been committed.[7]The section states, “No court may initiate contempt proceedings, on its own initiative or otherwise after a one-year period has elapsed from the date on which the contempt is presumed to have been committed.”[8]


Contempt of court is essentially seen as a form of interference that may hinder the functioning of the court. The judge may impose fines and / or imprisonment on any person who commits contempt of court. The person is usually allowed on the basis of his or her agreement to comply with the wishes of the court.[9] Civil contempt may involve acts of omission. The judge will use warnings in most situations that could result in someone being charged with contempt. It is relatively rare for a person to be charged with contempt without having received at least one warning from the judge.[10]

Edited by Pushpamrita Roy

Approved & Published – Sakshi Raje 


[1]“contempt: definition of contempt in Oxford dictionary (American English) (US)”. Oxforddictionaries.com. 




[5]1971 1 SCC 626

[6][1999] FCA 1213

[7]M.Santhi vs Mr.Pradeed Yadav

[8]Section 20, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

[9]Hill, G. (2008). Contempt of Court. Retrieved April 12, 2008 from, Law.dictionary.com


Ayush Pandia
My name is Ayush Pandia and I am pursuing B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) at the National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi. I am a keen learner and my interests in law are drawn towards Sports Law, Arbitration (International and Commercial), Intellectual Property Rights and Philosophy of law. I love to learn new aspects of different fields as well especially science. Apart from that, I love to research new laws and amendments & to read online articles. I love to watch movies of real events and read about conspiracy theories. I like to spend my time watching football matches. I am a football and volleyball player at my university and have hobby of doing mobile photography