Amid intense debates about the justness of the Supreme Court's contempt verdict against Advocate Prashant Bhushan for his tweets against the judiciary and the Chief Justice of India, an order passed by the top court in 2018 assumes relevance.
That was a case pertaining to a contempt action against an advocate of the Punjab and Haryana High Court for making a Facebook post against a judge.
Manish Vashisht, an advocate and also a correspondent of 'Punjab Kesari' daily, made a Facebook post in 2017 against Justice Inderjit Singh of HC alleging that the judge dismissed three of his cases illegally, without hearing him. He went on to say that the judge took a week to release the judgment as he had no idea what to write in it. The order was not a speaking order. Not stopping there, the advocate said that a better judgment could have been written by a magistrate. Though High Court judges admonish Magistrates for not uploading orders on the same day, they themselves are not uploading orders even after 7 days, he added in the post.
After coming to know about the Facebook post, Justice Inderjit Singh initiated suo moto contempt proceedings against the advocate and referred the matter to a division bench.
The case was considered by a division bench of Justices M.S. Bedi and Hari Pal Verma.
The advocate-journalist, in response to the contempt notice, argued that the court could not be a prosecutor and a judge of its own cause. The division bench rejected his contentions by stating that High Court has inherent power under Article 215 of the Constitution to exercise contempt jurisdiction to protect its dignity and authority.
The Court held that the advocate's post amounted to contempt of court :
"He is held guilty of having committed contempt of Court by issuing contemptuous publication, annexure P-8, alleging that the judgment passed against him by the High Court was not speaking and a better decision could have been written by a Magistrate. The Judge had not uploaded the judgment as the Judge might not have understood what was to be written.Such a derogatory remark is contemptuous on the face of it as such the contemnor is held guilty of having committed contempt of court".
Though he urged that leniency may be shown in sentence considering the fact that he was an advocate, the Court turned down this plea and sentenced him to one month imprisonment.
The Court observed that advocates, as officers of the court, have to maintain the dignity and authority of the court.
"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".
The HC suspended the sentence for a period of one month to enable him to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court's order
The Supreme Court set aside his conviction and sentence in a one-page order, observing that it was not a case where contempt action should have been taken in the first place.
The short order of the apex court did not discuss the merits of the matter in detail while overturning the HC decision.
"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. We thus allow this appeal and set aside the impugned order passed by the High Court," said a bench of Justice AK Sikri and Justice R Subhash Reddy in the order passed on November 12, 2018.
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.
Click here to download the P&H HC judgment in the contempt case against Manish Vashisht
Click here to download the SC order setting aside the contempt verdict against Manish Vashisht.