Criticising verdicts not criminal contempt: IHC judge

Published September 11, 2022
Justice Babar Sattar. — Photo courtesy: IHC website
Justice Babar Sattar. — Photo courtesy: IHC website

ISLAMABAD: The legitimacy of courts rests on the quality of their judgements and undue criticism on verdicts is not contempt, the Isla­m­abad High Court (IHC) observed on Saturday in its detailed order following the dismissal of a conte­mpt of court petition against PTI leader Fawad Chaud­hary earlier this week, over his anti-judiciary statements.

The petition, filed by Advocate Saleem Ullah Khan, sought contempt of court proceedings against Mr Chaudhry for using indecent remarks against the high court’s chief justice on a TV channel.

In the detailed order, Justice Babar Sattar obser­ved that the “legitimacy and moral authority of this court must rest on the quality or merit of its judgments and not by imposing judicial censorship on criticism of its judgments”.

“This court is therefore not convinced even intemperate and misconceived criticism on a judgment of this court by the respondent [Fawad Chaudhry] would cause serious or substantial detriment to administration of justice by this court rendering the respondent liable to be tried for the offence of contempt of court,” the order said.

The petitioner, the order said, contended that Mr Chaudhry had uttered “derogatory, imperious and disparaging” remarks against the IHC chief justice and expected the judge to apologise for overlooking the issue of alleged torture on PTI leader Shahbaz Gill.The detailed verdict said the court inquired from the petitioner as to the nature of the contempt he believed Mr Chaudhry had committed, to which the petitioner said the PTI leader was liable for criminal contempt.

He argued that Mr Chaudhry had criticised the chief justice and other judges of the high court in a derogatory manner and this court ought to initiate contempt proceedings to hold him to account and also to deter other political leaders from making anti-judiciary remarks.

Justice Sattar pointed out that the offence of scandalising a judge was invented by common law to prevent the undermining of public confidence in the administration of justice. It is used where there was a “scurrilous abuse of a judge or a court of law” or where there was a false imputation of bias or some form of partiality against a judge or when it was falsely alleged that a judge or a court had been influenced by someone.

“Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees the right of citizens to freedom of speech. Such right, however, is subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law. And the consideration identified, on the basis of which reasonable restrictions can be imposed, includes contempt of court,” the order said.

The court ruled that in the present case, the petitioner did not allege that Mr Chaudhry expressed opinion relating to the matter that was pending before the court. The speech that had been highlighted as constituting contempt of court related to commentary on a judgement delivered by the IHC. “Such speech would not fall within the realm of criminal contempt but that of judicial contempt,” the order said.

The order said that “in striking a balance between the right to freedom of speech and public interest in the administration of justice, when it comes to question of judicial contempt based on criticism of the judgement in a matter that has been decided by a court, the court must exercise restraint and uphold the right of freedom of speech so that the law of contempt operates in a manner least restrictive of the freedom guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution”.

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2022

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