An American president, a British home secretary and an Indian state minister were charged with contempt of court
LAHORE: The decision of the Federal cabinet on Wednesday to approve a bill allowing some amendments in the existing contempt of court laws may surely have raised many an eyebrow in country’s legal fraternity, aware sections of the society and media, because if this bill is passed by the parliament in near future, it would allow the prime minister, president and ministers etc to be disrespectful, insolent or disorderly towards the authority of the arbiters.
By the way, this will not be the first time when Pakistan will see changes in its Contempt of Court law, as Messrs Nawaz Sharif (1998) and Pervez Musharraf (2003) have already been guilty of doing this during their respective tenures.
But what the PPP government now wishes to do seemingly has a far more extensive ambit—- something which both Sharif and Musharraf had not even thought of doing during their respective tenures.
Visibly offensive towards the judges, the government also plans to allow the parliamentarians to level allegations against any sitting judge and to pass remarks against the conduct of any arbiter.
It goes without saying that the government also wishes to widen the scope of the right of appeal for the parliamentarians, in cases where any law-maker is found guilty of ridiculing the court and charged with contempt.
It is imperative to note that a former US President, Bill Clinton, an Indian and a British minister were held questionable in their context by the courts in their respective countries.All these bigwigs had to pay the penalty for showing utter disdain and disregard to the authority of their respective courts.
Just last month here in Pakistan, Yusuf Raza Gilani had to lose his hard-earned premiership for not abiding by court directives.Research reveals that legislators in India, United States, Australia, Canada and United Kingdom etc cannot even dream of scandalizing the court, impeding its functionality or ridiculing the judges by publicly criticizing their verdicts or trial proceedings because the adjudicators may impose fines and/or jail the persons opting to be contemptuous towards the court—-irrespective of their social status.
It is, however, relatively rare that a person is charged for contempt without first receiving at least one warning from the judge.(Reference: People’s Law Dictionary by Gerald and Kathleen Hill)
In the United States, although newspapers cannot be closed because of their content—-courtesy the freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the American Constitution—-but, the judge can notify the offending party that he or she has acted in a manner which disrupts the tribunal and prejudices the administration of justice.
After giving the person the opportunity to respond, the judge may impose the sanction immediately. The guilty party can be imprisoned or fined for committing this crime. Former US head of state, Bill Clinton, was held in contempt of court by a federal judge (Justice Susan Webber Wright) for giving an “intentionally false” testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in the Paula Jones lawsuit in April 1999, marking the first time that a sitting president in the United States was ever sanctioned for disobeying a court order.
(Reference: The Washington Post edition of April 13, 1999)Clinton was fined $1,202 by the judge for this crime and had very narrowly escaped a stricter court admonishment.
Clinton had to pay for her airline ticket, the price of which was actually $1,202. Justice Wright had refused to grant Clinton absolute presidential immunity against this lawsuit, but nonetheless, she had gone on to rule that a sitting president could not be sued and deferred his trial until after his presidential term was over.
In Chadwick versus Janecka Case of 2002, a US court of appeals had imprisoned Beatty Chadwick for nine years for deliberately disobeying the court. But when Chadwick was set free in 2009, he had already served a prison sentence of 14 years— making his imprisonment the longest on a contempt charge to date.
In United Kingdom, under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, the maximum sentence for criminal contempt is two years. A former British Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was also charged in a contempt case in 1991.
The British Court of Appeal had held that Secretary Baker was in contempt of court - the first serving minister to be found guilty on this count - for defying a court order and deporting a man from Zaire while proceedings were pending against him.
The British court had ruled: “It would be a black day for the rule of law and the liberty of the subject if ministers were not accountable to the courts for their personal actions.” However, this ruling did not prompt Baker to resign as Home Secretary.
(References: BBC and the Daily Telegraph)
In India, a contempt of court may be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to two thousand rupees, or with both under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.
As far as permission to the Indian law-makers to be disrespectful to their court judges is concerned, we should all recall that in 2006, an Indian Minister of State for Transport, Swaroop Singh Naik, was sentenced by the Supreme Court of India to a month in jail for violating an order on protecting forests.
In 1997, the Indian Supreme Court had directed all unlicensed saw mills in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra from relaxing norms for fresh permits. Legal mills were also asked to renew their licences.
Swaroop Singh Naik was found to have facilitated permits to such mills in violation of the High Court ruling.
Meanwhile, the then Maharashtra state Additional Chief Secretary, Ashok Khot, was also sentenced to one-month simple imprisonment along with the State Transport Minister.
In Canada, Under Federal Court Rules, Section 472, if somebody is accused of Contempt and found guilty in this context, punishment can range from the person being imprisoned for a period of less than five years or until the person complies with the order or pays fine.
The Canadian parliamentarians can be charged under the same law and are no exception to the rule. In Australia too, a judge may impose a fine or jail in such cases—-irrespective of the social status of the guilty person.
There is no doubt that the United States, Europe, Australia, Canada and India etc and other countries are currently faced with the challenge of harnessing the social media and bring it under the preview of contempt of court, but contempt laws are regarded as a sound piece of legislation and are still valid in the internet age.