Supreme Court Bar Association vs Union Of India, AIR 1998 SC 1895
Citation – AIR 1998 SC 1895
Date of judgement – 17 April 1998
Lawyers’ lives are built on a foundation of professional ethics. Everyone has the right to choose a lawyer to represent them in court. It means that lawyers have a constitutional obligation to take on the case of anyone who comes to them for legal help.
The purpose of the contempt authority, according to the court, is to protect the majesty of law and the administration of justice, not to defend the dignity and honour of the individual judge who is personally insulted or scandalised. The cornerstone of the system is the people’s faith in the judiciary’s capacity to administer courageous and impartial justice.
The Supreme Court Bar Association vs Union of India (1998) stands as a landmark case in the legal history of India. This pivotal judgment, delivered by the Supreme Court of India, has far-reaching implications and addresses fundamental issues that resonate within the nation’s legal framework.
In this article, we delve into the details of this significant case, examining the context, the legal arguments, and, most importantly, the profound judgement.
Facts of the Case
The contemner, an attorney, was found guilty of criminal contempt of court for interfering with and “obstructing the process of justice by attempting to frighten, overawe, and overbear the court by using rude, contemptuous, and threatening words.”
He was condemned to simple jail for six years and barred from practising as an advocate for three years. The sentence of confinement was suspended for four years and would be activated if he was convicted of any other act of contempt of court during that time.
Dissatisfied with the decision to bar the defendant from practising as an advocate for three years, the Supreme Court Bar Association, through its Honorary Secretary, filed a writ petition under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, seeking:
- An appropriate writ, direction, or declaration declaring that the disciplinary committees of the Bar Councils established under the Advocates Act, 1961, have sole authority to investigate and suspend or bar an advocate from practising law for professional or other misconduct arising out of a punishment imposed for contempt of court or otherwise; and
- A statement that the Supreme Court of India or any High Court, acting within its inherent jurisdiction, has no original jurisdiction, power, or authority in this matter.
Can the Supreme Court, in exercising its powers under Article 129, read with Article 142 of the Constitution of India, punish an advocate for committing proven contempt of court by suspending his licence for a defined term and barring him from practising law?
While broad*, the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to penalise for contempt of court is nonetheless restricted, and it cannot be enlarged to include the ability to evaluate whether an advocate is also guilty of “professional misconduct” in a summary way, bypassing the Advocates Act’s procedure. While the power to do complete justice under Article 142 is a corrective power that favours equity over the law, it cannot be used to deprive a professional lawyer of due process under the Advocates Act, 1961, by suspending his licence to practise in a summary manner while dealing with a contempt of court case.
Article 142’s curative powers cannot be understood as allowing the court to disregard a litigant’s substantive rights when dealing with a case before it. This authority may not be utilised to “supplant” substantive law that applies to the matter or cause before the court. Even with its breadth, Article 142 cannot be used to construct a new tower where none previously existed by ignoring explicit statutory provisions dealing with a subject and achieving something indirectly that cannot be attained directly.
Punishing a contemner advocate by suspending his licence to practise while dealing with a contempt of court case, a power otherwise statutorily available only to the Bar Council of India, on the basis that the contemner is also an advocate, is thus not permissible in the exercise of the jurisdiction under Article 142. The salutary goal of Article 142, namely, to do complete justice between the parties, must be operationally informed by its interpretation. It can’t be any other way. The contemner and the court are not litigating parties in a case of contempt of court.
A complaint of professional misconduct is investigated by the Bar Council’s disciplinary committee, much like a court of law investigates a criminal case, and an advocate may be punished based on the evidence presented to the Disciplinary Committee of the Bar Council after being allowed to be heard. The offending advocate may be removed from the Advocates’ Rolls or subjected to any other sanction permitted by the Act.
As a result, the Supreme Court cannot penalise an advocate for “professional misconduct” while exercising appellate authority by changing itself into a statutory body with “original jurisdiction.” Indeed, if the concerned Bar Council does not take any action against an advocate after being informed of their willful and blameworthy conduct by the High Court or the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court, in exercising its appellate powers under section 38 of the Advocates Act, 1961, read with Article 142 of the Constitution, may well have the jurisdiction to proceed suo motu and send for the records from the Bar Council and pass appropriate orders. If a case is pending before the relevant Bar Council and the Bar Council “does not act,” the Supreme Court may sometimes consider exercising appellate jurisdiction suo motu.
The Supreme Court’s job, according to the court, is to ensure that statutory bodies and other state organs fulfil their tasks in conformity with the law; nevertheless, it is not allowed for the Supreme Court to assume the role of the bodies and other state organs and perform their activities.
In the case of Vinay Mishra, there was an inherent fallacy: it was argued that once the subject was before the court, it may pass any order or instruction. However, this is a case of contempt of court rather than professional misconduct. The court has authority over contempt, while the Bar has jurisdiction over professional misconduct.
After the case of Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India 1978 AIR 597, the Bar can only suspend an advocate after providing him with the opportunity to represent himself, as required by due process of law. In Vinay’s case, the court endowed itself with jurisdiction it had never had before.
The Supreme Court can punish anybody who commits contempt of court under Article 129, read with Article 142 of the Indian Constitution. The High Courts can punish contemners under Article 215 of the Constitution, and the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971 controls the sanctions imposed by the High Court. This Act has no bearing on the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. In this case, the court misinterpreted Article 129 and Article 142, depriving the Bar of any ability to sanction individuals who engage in professional misconduct.
The court used a fairly objective approach and, with the support of the law and proper interpretation, concluded that the ability to punish for any professional misconduct lies with the Bar. However, it only has jurisdiction over itself and subordinate courts to punish for contempt. No legislation can take away the Supreme Court’s or the High Court’s contempt jurisdiction.
The superior court’s contempt jurisdiction is not founded on legislation but rather on the fact that it is a court of record, which gives it that power. The Supreme Court and High Courts have the power of contempt since the Constitution considers them courts of record.
Civil contempt is important because deliberately disobedient litigants who disobey the court’s orders cannot be excused; otherwise, the administration of justice and public confidence in the judiciary would suffer. Citizens’ trust, faith, and confidence in the judiciary is a precondition for the Rule of Law to exist.
Experts, conversely, feel that criminal contempt should be simplified if not outright abolished. This is because it can potentially be used to restrict freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.
* The term “broad” refers to the extent or scope of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. It suggests that while the Supreme Court has a significant or wide-ranging jurisdiction, there are certain limits or restrictions imposed on it when it comes to penalizing individuals for contempt of court.
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