Contempt and Mens rea

Standard of proof

The standard of proof required to establish a charge of ‘criminal contempt’ is the same as in any other criminal proceeding. It is all the more necessary to insist upon strict proof of such charge when the act or omission complained of is committed by the respondent under colour of his office as a judicial officer. Wrong order or even an act of usurpation of jurisdiction committed by a judicial Officer, owing to an error of judgment or to a misapprehension of the correct legal position, does not fall within the mischief of “criminal contempt”. Human judgment is fallible and a judicial Officer is no exception. Consequently, so long as a judicial Officer in the discharge of his official duties, acts in good faith and without any motive to defeat, obstruct or interfere with the due course of justice, the courts will not, as a rule punish him for a “criminal contempt”. Even if it could be urged that mens rea, as such, is not an indispensable ingredient of the offence of contempt, the courts are loath to punish a contemner, if the act or omission complained of, was not willful. (See S. Abdul Karim v. M.K. Prakash, 1976 CrLJ 641 : 1976 AIR (SC) 859 : 1976 CAR 124 : 1976 CrLR (SC) 102 : 1976 Ker LT 184 : 1976 SCC (Cr) 2170)

A question whether there is contempt of court or not is a serious one. The court is both the accuser as well as the judge of the accusation. It behaves the court to act with as great circumspection as possible making all allowances for errors of judgment and difficulties arising from inveterate practices in courts and tribunals. It is only when a clear case of contumacious conduct not explainable otherwise, arises that the contemnor must be punished. It must be realised that our system of courts often results in delay of one kind or another. The remedy for it is reform and punishment departmentally. Punishment under the law of Contempt is called for when the lapse is deliberate and in disregard of one’s duty and in defiance of authority. To take action in an unclear case is to make the law of contempt do duty for other measures and is not to be encouraged. [Debabrata Bandopadhyay vs The State Of West Bengal,1969 AIR SC 189, 1969 SCR (1) 304 on 2 July, 1968]

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About Sandeep Bhalla

A lawyer, thinker, author, Linux/Ubuntu power user and sometime an economist or gardener or philosopher or cook or photographer depending upon the current thought and environment. View all posts by Sandeep Bhalla

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