Law of contempt of court must be interpreted differently when it relates to PILs, says senior advocate Indira Jaising

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ENIOR advocate Indira Jaising in her capacity as one of the founders of an online portal, The Leaflet (, has filed an intervention application in the contempt petition pending against advocate Prashant Bhushan before the Supreme Court of India. The Leaflet provides contemporaneous reportage from courts across the country and is a platform for comments, and opinions on legal matters of public interest.

In her application, Jaising has submitted that the law relating to contempt of court when applied to matters which are sub-judice, must be interpreted differently in Public Interest Litigation (PIL). Public interest does not pertain to personal rights of the parties in question. A larger public interest is maintained and furthered with diverse and vibrant comment, discussion and debate, says Jaising in her application.



Such opinion and comment cannot obstruct the administration of justice even when the matter is sub-judice as it relates to a larger public interest, and a restraint on such discussion will violate Article 19 of the Constitution, since dissemination of information and receiving information through the media is part of the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19.

The application further reads that in any event when issues of good governance and accountability are raised in a PIL, the country as a whole has an interest in the maintenance of the rule of law and hence such matters are by definition in public interest. To buttress her argument, she cites the Supreme Court’s decision in Centre for PIL vs Union of India; 2011 4 SCC 1, where the Court had held that institutional integrity must be maintained to ensure good governance. Much of public interest litigation today is directed towards maintaining institutional integrity so that the rule of law is respected and constitutional norms are followed in matters relating to appointments to public office. It is not only natural but also desirable that the public must have a stake in these issues and make constructive comments on pending cases.



Jaising has in her application also mentioned that a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court in Sahara India Real Estate Corporation Ltd. & Ors. v. Securities and Exchange Board of India & Anr (2012) 10 SCC 603, had already dealt with the issue of prior restraints on media reporting in certain sensitive matters.


Background of the Case


On February 6, 2019, a two-judge bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra and Navin Sinha of the Supreme Court had issued a contempt notice on a contempt petition filed by the Attorney General for India K K Venugopal and the Central Government against advocate Prashant Bhushan for his tweet of February 1, 2019, alleging that the government had misled the Supreme Court about the appointment of M Nageswara Rao as interim CBI Director.

The tweet was made by Bhushan in the backdrop of the submission made by the AG before the Court during the course of the hearing of a PIL, challenging the appointment of M Nageswara Rao as interim CBI Director.

The Court had also decided to examine “whether in a matter which is sub-judice, it is open to criticise the court proceedings to affect the public opinion by litigants and lawyers and protection of various other rights of the litigants are also involved; what are the rights of the litigants and what may amount to interference in the course of administration of justice. In view of the aforesaid decision and facts and circumstances, we deem it appropriate to hear the matter”.



It may be noted that in addition to the intervention application filed by Jaising, three more intervention applications have been filed by a group of lawyers, journalists and eminent citizens.

A group of journalists comprising Arun Shourie, Mrinal Pande, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Manoj Mitta and N. Ram have said that contempt proceedings against Prashant Bhushan have been initiated for exercising his freedom of speech. The best information about the facts and issues involved in any particular case can only be obtained from the lawyers and litigants involved in those cases, the journalists have said in their application.

Further, a group of eminent citizens comprising Aruna Roy, Wajahat Habibullah, Arundhati Roy, Harsh Mander, Jayati Ghose, Prabhat Patnaik, Indu Prakash Singh, Shailesh Gandhi, Bezwada Wilson and Nikhil Dey in their application have said that “it appears that initiation of present contempt proceedings are an assault on the freedom of speech and expression of the citizens of this country and an attempt to stifle this right by using the power of contempt”.



The application filed by the group of citizens further says “the applicants are of the considered view that what Prashant Bhushan said in his tweets were not unreasonable in the circumstances and the applicants would probably have said the same thing in similar circumstances. In any case, the subject matter of those tweets cannot under any circumstances be treated as an issue of contempt of court”.    

Advocate Prashant Bhushan has also filed an application seeking the recusal of Justice Arun Mishra from hearing the contempt petition against him.


Read the application filed by Indira Jaising.



Read the application filed by Arun Shourie and others.



Read the application filed by Aruna Roy and others.


The Leaflet