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'A Bar Silenced Under Threat Of Contempt Cannot Lead To A Strong Court' : Advocates Express Dismay At Contempt Verdict Against Prashant Bhushan

LIVELAW NEWS NETWORK
17 Aug 2020 12:10 PM GMT
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Expressing disappointment at the Supreme Court verdict holding Advocate Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt of court for two tweets, over 1300 advocates have issued a statement, demanding that the conviction should not be given effect to until the issue is reviewed by a larger bench in an open court hearing.

Pointing out that it is the duty lawyers to freely bring any shortcomings to the notice of bar, bench and the public at large, they said that a bar silenced under the threat of contempt will weaken the judiciary.

"This judgment does not restore the authority of the court in the eyes of the public. Rather, it will discourage lawyers from being outspoken. From the days of the supersession of judges and the events thereafter, it has been the Bar that has been the first to stand in defence of the independence of the judiciary. A bar silenced under the threat of contempt, will undermine the independence and ultimately the strength of the Court. A silenced bar, cannot lead to a strong court", said the statement signed by Senior Advocates Janak Dwarakadas, Navroz H Seervai, Dairus J Khambata, Jayant Bhushan, Dushyant Dave, Arvind P Datar, Huzefa Ahamdi, C U Singh, Shyam Divan, Sanjay Hegde, Mihir Desai, Maneka Guruswamy,Bishwajit Bhattacharyya, Percy Kavina, Pallav Shishodia, Shekhar Naphade, Raju Ramachandran etc.

"An independent judiciary does not mean that judges are immune from scrutiny and comment. It is the duty of lawyers to freely bring any shortcomings to the notice of bar, bench and the public at large. While some of us may have divergent views on the advisability and content of Mr. Prashant Bhushan's two tweets, we are unanimously of the view that no contempt of court was intended or committed especially when contrasted with the normal standard that "Justice is not a cloistered virtue... She must be allowed to suffer the scrutiny and respectful, even though outspoken comments of ordinary men", the statement added.

They said that Bhushan's tweets did not say anything out of the ordinary, other than what is routinely expressed about the court's working in recent years by many on public fora and on social media. Even some retired judges of the Supreme Court have expressed somewhat similar views, they said.

They also expressed disappointment over the fact that the Attorney General was not heard in the matter, despite the clear mandate of contempt law.

Contempt Verdict Against Prashant Bhushan An Assault On Free Speech : Sr Adv Navroz Seervai [Read Statement]

They requested the court to not given effect to the judgment "until a larger bench, sitting in open court after the pandemic has the opportunity to review the standards of criminal contempt".

 "We do believe that the Supreme Court will hear the Voice of the People expressed all around in last 72 hours on the subject and take corrective steps to prevent miscarriage of Justice and restore the confidence and respect that Citizens have generally reposed in it", read the statement, also endorsed by lawyers like Vrinda Grover, Kamini Jaiswal, Suhrith Parthasarathy, Rebecca M John etc.

[Prashant Bhushan Contempt] If Two Tweets Can Bring Down Court's Authority, Then It Is Not As Strong As We Imagined: Senior Adv Sanjay Hegde

On August 14, the Supreme Court held Bhushan guilty of criminal contempt for tweeting against the judiciary. One tweet, made in reference to a picture of CJI Bobde seated on a Harley Davidson bike, alleged that the CJI was enjoying expensive bike rides while keeping the Supreme Court under lockdown.

Another tweet alleged that the Supreme Court contributed to the destruction of democracy in the last six years, and the last 4 CJIs played a particular role in that.

The Court held that the tweets were based on "distorted facts" and had the effect of undermining the authority and dignity of the court.

"The tweet has the effect of destabilising the very foundation of this important pillar of the Indian democracy...There is no manner of doubt, that the tweet tends to shake the public confidence in the institution of judiciary", observed a bench of Justices Arun Mishra, B R Gavai and Krishna Murari in the judgment.

Read the full statement here :

"We, the below named, practicing members of the bar in India, have noted with dismay, the judgment of the Supreme Court, in Mr. Prashant Bhushan's contempt case. An independent judiciary consisting of independent judges and lawyers, is the basis of the rule of law in a Constitutional democracy. Mutual respect and the absence of coercion, are the hallmarks of a harmonious relationship between the bar and bench. Any tilting of the balance, one way or the other, is deleterious both to the institution and the nation.

An independent judiciary does not mean that judges are immune from scrutiny and comment. It is the duty of lawyers to freely bring any shortcomings to the notice of bar, bench and the public at large. While some of us may have divergent views on the advisability and content of Mr. Prashant Bhushan's two tweets, we are unanimously of the view that no contempt of court was intended or committed especially when contrasted with the normal standard that "Justice is not a cloistered virtue... She must be allowed to suffer the scrutiny and respectful, even though outspoken comments of ordinary men."

While Mr. Prashant Bhushan as a lawyer of good standing of the Supreme Court, may not be an ordinary man, his tweets do not say anything out of the ordinary, other than what is routinely expressed about the court's working in recent years by many on public fora and on social media. Even some retired judges of the Supreme Court have expressed somewhat similar views.

This judgment does not restore the authority of the court in the eyes of the public. Rather, it will discourage lawyers from being outspoken. From the days of the supersession of judges and the events thereafter, it has been the Bar that has been the first to stand in defence of the independence of the judiciary. A bar silenced under the threat of contempt, will undermine the independence and ultimately the strength of the Court. A silenced bar, cannot lead to a strong court.

We also express a deep sense of disappointment about the Supreme Court's utter disregard of the presence of the Learned Attorney General, a highly respected Lawyer of great eminence, and its refusal to seek his valuable opinion in the matter, which is mandated even as per contempt law.

We are of the firm view that the judgment must not be given effect to, until a larger bench, sitting in open court after the pandemic has the opportunity to review the standards of criminal contempt. We do believe that the Supreme Court will hear the Voice of the People expressed all around in last 72 hours on the subject and take corrective steps to prevent miscarriage of Justice and restore the confidence and respect that Citizens have generally reposed in it". 

Full list of signatories here

Another group of lawyers, activists, academics, etc. has issued a statement expressing solidarity with Mr. Bhushan. They are highly anguished and discontent with the SC's decision inasmuch as it convicts Mr. Bhushan, only for "echoing the truth", and hope that the Court will reconsider and review its decision.

"It is an unconscionable decision to hold Mr. Bhushan guilty of contempt for articulating his genuine concerns qua the functioning of the Court as well as stating facts about the recent events, in his tweets. This is also objectionable in terms of the far reaching effects that this order is bound to have on the effective functioning of the judiciary," they said.

They added,

"Our Constitution makers could not have intended for India to become a country where constitutional institutions such as the Supreme Court, stifle criticism, especially when that criticism stands on facts and passes the test of legitimacy. The Hon'ble Supreme Court bears the responsibility of not only being accepting of its infallibility but of also setting an example for the rest of the Courts of this country. The intolerance and the unreasonable use of the Contempt Act would only encourage a similar intolerance amongst the rest of the judiciary. This sentence will not only cause despondency amongst the other members of the Bar but will also result in degradation of the Indian democracy."

Full List of signatories here

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