31.8.05

Truth as defence to contempt

After years of debate India seems set to allow 'truth' as a defence to contempt of court cases onto the statute book.

A Parliamentary Committee reviewing the proposed government Bill has this week signaled its approval for the new measure which would allow someone charged with contempt for having made an imputation against a court or judge to plead 'truth' as a defence. In other words, where someone is highly critical or even damning of a court or judge, if they can provide evidence that their comments and criticism are true, then this should stand as a defence even if it does undermine the court or a case.

Pressure for such an amendment came to bear on Parliament following the Supreme Court decision in Pritam Lal (Pritam Lal v. High Court of M.P. 1992 Cr.L.J. 1269= AIR 1992 SC 904) where an advocate had been charged with interfering with the administration of justice after making defamatory allegations about the judges before whom he was appearing.

In placing such a provision on the statute book Parliament would be allowing for greater open scrutiny of those administering justice, provided always that the basis for such scrutiny could be proven to be true. It will still be a judge who decides whether to prosecute alleged contempts or rule on the admissibility of the defence in a particular case so there is room for debate as to whether an imputation that is partially as opposed to substantially true would qualify for the defence under the new legislation when passed.

Whether legal reformists in the UK would entertain such a development in relation to contempt in the face of court or scandalising the court under UK contempt laws, poses an interesting question. Truth operates as a defence under defamation law and there is also the defence of privilege in relation to court proceedings, so where someone libeled a judge in open court then provided such libel could be shown to be true and didn't seriously prejudice the proceedings, then it may not amount to deliberate contempt or the older offence of a scandalous attack on the judiciary. In any event there is always the public interest defence under UK contempt laws and as exposing the truth can be seen to be in the public interest, the need for a specific defence in our contempt laws seems remote.

More on story from express india HERE
More discussion on India's contempt law HERE and HERE
Comprehensive comment from indiatogether.org HERE
Indian 1971 Contempt of Courts Act HERE

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