Conviction of Adv. Virendra Singh, by the Delhi HC takes back our criminal justice system to the Dark Ages

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On 9th January, 2024, when I was boarding a flight from Del-bom, at around 6pm, I received a call from Adv Virendra Singh. Upon reaching Bombay I called him back, he told me that he has been convicted for criminal contempt of court and sentenced to imprisonment for 6 months and a fine of Rs. 2000, which is the maximum punishment prescribed under the Act. I came to learn from him that such an order was passed without him being afforded an opportunity to adduce evidence in his defence and that he had no lawyer to defend him, which is a constitutional guarantee.

The conviction and sentence is for a bailable offence and under Section 19(2) of the Contempt of court Act, an appeal will lie to the Supreme Court as a matter of right. He made a handwritten application for suspension of sentence, to enable him to file an appeal. He sent me a copy of the application so made. Thereafter I could not establish contact with him. I came to know from the news that he was taken to the Tihar jail.

The judgement running into 29 pages which came to be uploaded on 10.1.2024 came as a rude shock to me. Out of the 29 pages, 16 pages are nothing but extractions from half a dozen judgements of the Supreme Court. In the remaining 13 pages, which is the actual judgement, there is no proper mention of what exactly the charge against him is, much less the allegations constituting the charge and the evidence and materials in support of the allegation. Almost 75 percent of the said 13 pages is nothing but a discussion about the plea of non-maintainability of the suo motu contempt proceedings initiated against him. Mr. Singh’s plea was that no contempt proceedings can be initiated except with the leave of the Advocate General/Central Government Standing counsel (in the case of Delhi).

Mr. Singh has been convicted on the premise that the allegations which his client has made in the memorandum of appeal on his advice is a “direct attack on the reputation and functioning of not only one judge but several judges of this court” and that it is necessary to proceed against him to preserve the faith of the common people in the administration of justice.

In the judgement certain averments which his client has made so too Mr. Singh’s reply to the show cause notice has been extracted. I found Mr. Singh’s drafting to be rather impressive and in sharp contrast to that of the judgement by which he was convicted, which was extremely poor in quality and reasoning. For instance, para 14 of the judgement of which I could not make head or tail. As I said, out of the 29 pages, 16 pages are mere extractions from other judgements. Only a few pages deal with what the actual case is. And it is difficult to make head or tail of the case from it. Anyone reading the judgement would wonder why and for what Mr. Virendra Singh was convicted. The only allegation is that he accused the high court judge and the trial court judge of favouring the accused and being prejudiced against the victim.

The further allegation is that opportunity was given to him twice by the single judge who took suo motu cognisance and the division bench which convicted him, to retract the allegations and tender his apology. On both occasions, Adv Virendra Singh, refused to delete the pleadings which was found to be offensive or to apologise, and asserted that he has stated nothing but the truth and that he stands by it. It is further recorded that on being questioned about the quantum of punishment also he reiterated that he has not committed any contempt and that what he has stated is the truth.

I have been campaigning for abolition of the contempt of court act and more particularly against its gross abuse for over two decades. There is no other power which is so blatantly abused than the power of contempt. My experience as a lawyer has been that it is the presiding officers who often commit contempt of their own court than the lawyers or litigants. It is the men and wowen in authority, be it the executive, nay, police or judiciary who can intimidate and threaten common citizens, lawyers and litigants who wield no power.

Nowhere in the civil law jurisdictions does the law of contempt exist. In England, where from the contempt jurisdiction originated, contempt by scandalisation became obsolete in the 19th century. In the US, Australia, Canada, too, such power has become obsolete. It only exists in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc. Our bar is divided into designated lawyers, AORs and others and it has become voiceless.

We have many liberal minded, humble and citizen friendly judges who disagree with such abuse of power but remain silent. I am sure that some of the noble judges will come in the open against the concept of contempt of court by scandalisation which cuts at the root of freedom of speech, which is the greatest of our constitutional ethos.

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