New Delhi: A Supreme Court bench, on Monday, set aside a Punjab and Haryana high court order issued on May 31, convicting and sentencing an advocate for one month’s simple imprisonment at Narnaul jail in Haryana for a Facebook post in which he was critical of a high court judge.
The details of the case are similar to the notice of contempt of court issued against former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Markandey Katju, for his Facebook post criticising a judgment delivered by a bench presided by Justice Ranjan Gogoi, presently the CJI. Justice Katju opted to apologise to the bench for his remarks, leading to the closure of the case against him.
The details of the high court case
On May 31, a division bench of the Punjab and Haryana high court sentenced an advocate-cum-journalist, Maneesh Vashistha, to simple imprisonment for one month, after suo motu finding him guilty of contempt of court. His offence: he alleged in a Facebook post that the judgment passed against him by Justice Inderjit Singh of the high court was not a speaking order and that a better decision could have been written by a magistrate.
Vashistha is an advocate practicing at Narnaul district and is also a correspondent for Punjab Kesri (Hissar edition).
Vashistha also wrote that the judge had not uploaded the judgment as he might not have understood what was to be written. On learning about the Facebook post from the litigants who were arraigned against Vashistha in a case before him, Justice Inderjit Singh initiated contempt proceedings against him, but directed the registry to put up the case before some other bench, after taking appropriate orders from the chief justice of the high court.
The case was then heard by the division bench of justices M.S. Bedi and Hari Pal Verma.
“Such a derogatory remark is contemptuous on the face of it as such the contemnor is held guilty of having committed contempt of court,” the bench wrote in its judgment, while directing him to surrender to undergo imprisonment on July 31. The high court decided to sentence him as he did not furnish any apology or express remorse. However, Vashishth pleaded that he should be shown leniency on account of his being an advocate.
In its judgment, the division bench of the high court rejected Vashishth’s contention that the court could not be a prosecutor and a judge of its own cause. It held, citing the Supreme Court’s judgment in Delhi Judicial Service Association’s case that the Supreme Court and the high court, being the court of record, shall have the powers as well as the duty to protect the authority and dignity of courts.
Citing another case, R.L. Kapur v State of Madras (1972), the division bench of the high court held that under Article 215 of the Constitution, the high court as a court of record possesses inherent power and jurisdiction, which is a special one, not arising or derived from Contempt of Courts Act and the provisions of Section 3 of 1926 Act.
It was specifically held in that case that under Article 215 of the Constitution, no law made by a legislature could take away the jurisdiction conferred on the high court nor it could confer it afresh by virtue of its own authority. The high court, therefore, held that it has got wide inherent power to punish for contempt not only of subordinate courts, but of the high court itself.
“The objective of the contempt proceedings is not to punish a contemner for insult of a particular judge, but for saving the dignity of the judicial system. In case the punishment is not awarded to a person, who by his publication scandalises and lowers the authority of not only the Court but has lowered the authority of the judiciary in the eyes of general public…the faith of the general public in the judiciary will be shattered,” the high court had held in its order.
The dignity and authority of the court has to be maintained not only by the general public but also by the advocates who constitute an important part of the system of administration of justice and are considered as officers of the Court.
Supreme Court’s order
On Monday, November 12, a Supreme Court bench of justices A.K. Sikri and R. Subhash Reddy set aside the high court order, on an appeal from the contemner. The high court, which had taken suo motu action against the appellant, did not opt to be represented before the Supreme Court, despite issue of notice.
The high court had suspended the sentence till the reopening of the Supreme Court in July, to enable Vashistha to appeal. On July 30, Justice S. Abdul Nazeer of the Supreme Court allowed his application for exemption from surrendering before the chief judicial magistrate of Narnaul on July 31, to avoid being imprisoned in the meantime.
On August 27, a Supreme Court bench of justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan stayed the high court order.
On Monday, allowing Vashistha’s appeal, the bench observed: “We have gone through the matter in detail and are of the view that it was not a case where the contempt action should have been taken against the appellant who is an Advocate.”
Similarity with Justice Katju’s case
Vashistha’s success in the Supreme Court offers an interesting contrast to Justice Katju’s own travails in the apex court for his Facebook post, which invited a contempt notice from a Justice Gogoi-led bench.
The order issuing the notice refers to Justice Katju’s blog, wherein he explains a “grave error” in the judgment delivered by a bench presided over by Justice Gogoi, and adds that “it is not expected of judges who had been in the legal world for decades”. The order reproduces another sentence from the blog as follows:
“Even a student of law in a law college knows this elementary principle that hearsay evidence is inadmissible.”
Justice Katju made this comment in the context of his criticism that the bench committed a serious error in admitting the hearsay evidence of a bystander. In the Soumya murder case, which was before the Supreme Court in the review proceedings, the bench acquitted the accused, Govindachamy, of murder charges, even though it found him guilty of assault and rape and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
Critics suggest that such conflicting decisions about the judiciary’s contempt powers indeed call for laying down consistent principles to protect free speech.