Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari, JJ has sentenced advocate Prashant Bhushan with a fine or Re.1/ (Rupee one) to be deposited with the Registry by 15.09.2020, failing which he shall undergo a simple imprisonment for a period of three months and further be debarred from practising in this Court for a period of three years. It had found advocate Prashant guilty of criminal contempt on 14.08.2020 in the suo motu contempt petition initiated against him after he criticised the Supreme Court and the sitting and former CJIs in a couple of tweets.
In the 82-pages long verdict on sentence, the Court said that it not on one occasion but on several occasions, not only gave opportunity but also directly or indirectly pursuaded the contemnor to express regret. Further, the Attorney General had also suggested that it was in the fitness of things that a contemnor expresses regret and withdraws the allegation made in the affidavit in reply, however, the request was not heeded to by the contemnor and he gave wide publicity to the second statement submitted before the Court on 24.08.2020 prior to the same being tendered to the Court. He also gave various interviews with regard to sub judice matter, thereby further attempting to bring down the reputation of the Court.
“If we do not take cognizance of such conduct it will give a wrong message to the lawyers and litigants throughout the country. However, by showing magnanimity, instead of imposing any severe punishment, we are sentencing the contemnor with a nominal fine of Re.1/ (Rupee one).”
KEY HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE VERDICT
On Judges being the silent sufferers of allegations against them
The Judges have to express their opinion by their judgments, and they cannot enter into public debate or go to press. It is very easy to make any allegation against the Judges in the newspaper and media. Judges have to be the silent sufferer of such allegations, and they cannot counter such allegations publicly by going on public platforms, newspapers or media
“Thus, it is necessary that when they cannot speak out, they cannot be made to suffer the loss of their reputation and prestige, which is essential part of the right to live with dignity.”
On the Press Conference dated 12.01.2018 of the then four senior-most Judges of the Supreme Court
Concept of equality before law, what is permissible not as to what is impermissible. Truth can be the defence to the Judges also, but they are bound by their judicial norms, ethics, and code of conduct.
“We hope it was the first and the last occasion that the Judges have gone to press, and God gives wisdom to protect its dignity by internal mechanism, particularly, when allegations made, if any, publicly cannot be met by sufferer Judges.”
On Prashant Bhushan being actively involved pursuing various Public Interest Litigations
“Merely because a lawyer is involved in the filing of the public interest litigation for the public good it does not arm him to harm the very system of which he is a part.”
An advocate cannot forget his ethical duty and responsibility and cannot denigrate the very system of which he/she is an integral part. Fair criticism is not to be silenced, but an advocate has to remind himself/herself, where he/she crosses the zone of propriety, and the Court cannot continuously ignore it, and the system cannot be made to suffer
On the Statements made by retired Judges, journalists, and others in Press/Media
The Court cannot abdicate its duty and has to be uninfluenced by the statements published in various articles published in the media and opinions expressed therein. It has to decide the case uninfluenced by such opinions.
On the argument that the Court will be criticized, in case it inflicts any punishment upon Prashant Bhushan
“While exercising our judicial functions, we cannot take into consideration whether we will be praised or criticized for the judgment which we render. We are required to decide the cases on the basis of the law as it correctly stands, in our perception and understanding. We are not expected to decide the matter on the basis as to whether there will be criticism of the judgment or not. We have to be always ready for its fair criticism.”
On the lawyers and litigants going to press or media in a sub judice matter
Prashant Bhushan talked to the press and media and the statement which was pursuant to the order dated 20.08.2020, was also published well in advance in extenso, word to word, in the newspaper and media. If such kind of action is resorted to in a sub judice matter, that too by an advocate who is facing a criminal contempt, it virtually tantamount to using a forum or platform which is not supposed to be used ethically and legally.
“In a sub judice matter, releasing such statement to the press in advance is an act of impropriety and has the effect of interfering with the judicial process and the fair decision making and is clearly an attempt to coerce the decision of the Court by the influence of newspaper and media, which cannot be said to be conducive for the fair administration of justice and would further tantamount to undue interference in the independent judicial making process which is the very foundation of institution of administration of justice.”
- The contention that he is a lawyer having of 35 years of standing and has also pursued various public interest litigations would no doubt be a relevant factor while balancing the decision to be taken by the Court. However, at the same time, the uncalled statements made in the affidavit for pursuing truth as a defence can also not be ignored.
- Lawyers’ noble profession will lose all its significance and charm and dignity if the lawyers are permitted to make any malicious, scandalous and scurrilous allegations against the institution of which they are part. The lawyers are supposed to be fearlessly independent and robust but at the same time respectful to the institution.
- It is apparent that in both the statements made by the contemnor, he is sticking to his ground, and he is not at all realizing that any wrong was done by him to the institution. At the same time, he has expressed the faith in the institution and he has submitted that an apology cannot be a mere incantation and an apology has to be as the Court itself put be sincerely made. He has further stated that he made the statement bona fide and with truthful details which had not been dealt with by the Court. He is insistent and has no remorse about what he has stated in the defence.
- Bhushan not gone by the advice of the learned Attorney General to withdraw the same and to take if off the record. Being a person well versed with law, he ought to have given due weightage to the advice rendered by the learned Attorney General who has pleaded not to sentence him, at the same time maintained that the statements made in the affidavit in reply could not be taken into consideration for considering the case of Mr. Prashant Bhushan of truth as a defence.
“When senior most functionary in the legal profession of the stature of the learned Attorney General was giving an advice to express regret and withdraw the wild allegations a lawyer of such a long standing was expected to give due respect to it. Even our request made to him has gone in vain.”
- Simple issuance of warning is not going to suffice in the instant case.
“We are not afraid of sentencing the contemnor either with imprisonment or from debarring him from the practice. His conduct reflects adamance and ego, which has no place to exist in the system of administration of justice and in noble profession, and no remorse is shown for the harm done to the institution to which he belongs. At the same time, we cannot retaliate merely because the contemnor has made a statement that he is neither invoking the magnanimity or the mercy of this Court and he is ready to submit to the penalty that can be lawfully be inflicted upon him for what the Court has determined to be an offence.”
A fine or Re.1/ (Rupee one) to be deposited with the Registry by 15.09.2020, failing which he shall undergo a simple imprisonment for a period of three months and further be debarred from practising in this Court for a period of three years.
Background of the issue:
The matter deals with certain tweets made by Bhushan. He had recently criticised the Supreme Court and the sitting and former CJIs in a couple of tweets which prompted the Supreme Court to initiate suo motu contempt petition against him. Here are the tweets:
The 3-judge bench of Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari, JJ, in a 108-pages long verdict, said that:
“The scurrilous allegations, which are malicious in nature and have the tendency to scandalize the Court are not expected from a person, who is a lawyer of 30 years standing. In our considered view, it cannot be said that the above tweets can be said to be a fair criticism of the functioning of the judiciary, made bona fide in the public interest.”
Stating that in order to protect the larger public interest, such attempts of attack on the highest judiciary of the country should be dealt with firmly, the Court noticed that Advocate Bhushan has been practicing for last 30 years in the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court and has consistently taken up many issues of public interest concerning the health of our democracy and its institutions and in particular the functioning of our judiciary and especially its accountability. Bhushan being part of the institution of administration of justice, instead of protecting the majesty of law has indulged into an act, which tends to bring disrepute to the institution of administration of justice.
[In re: Prashant Bhushan, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 698, decided on 31.08.2020]
Read more on the judgment here
Read Advocate Prashant Bhushan’s supplementary reply here