Contempt of court or conscience: What do these phrases and words mean?

All the legalise that you have been reading in the newspaper about the Prashant Bhushan case dumbfounding you? Albert P' Rayan simplifies it all for us. Read on to see how
Lady Justice | (Pic: Internet)
Lady Justice | (Pic: Internet)

During the past week, the terms ‘contempt’, ‘contempt of court’ and ‘contempt of conscience’ were widely used in both the mainstream and social media. The hashtags #PrashantBhushanCase, #SupremeCourt and #ContemptOfCourt were trending on Twitter. Commenting on the Law of Contempt, an advocate with the Twitter handle @AdvAmitSahni tweeted: “I think I have finally understood the Law of Contempt — you cannot laugh at a joke until it is retired.”

Recently, the Supreme Court found advocate and human rights activist Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt of court for two of his tweets on the current Chief Justice of India (CJI) and former CJIs. The #PrashantBhushanCase, debated by various news channels and discussed in social media has prompted a reader of the column to send in this query: “While reading a news report, I came across the expressions ‘in contempt’ and ‘contempt of conscience’. What do the phrases mean? Can the word ‘contempt’ be used as a verb?”

The word ‘contempt’ has different meanings. The primary meaning of the word is ‘lack of respect’. If we look at someone with contempt, we consider the person worthless and do not respect them. The synonyms of ‘contempt’ are disdain, disrespect, disregard, and scorn. As a legal term, it means “wilful disregard of or disrespect for the authority of a court of law”. Bhushan’s tweets were about allegations of corruption in the judiciary. So he argued that such allegations of corruption should not be treated as contempt.

The expression ‘to hold someone in contempt’ refers to the act of judging someone guilty of showing disrespect to the court. It is a legal term. Look at these examples:
- A ruling party politician was held in contempt of court.
- He was held in contempt of court and taken into custody.

The verb form of ‘contempt’ is ‘contemn’ but it is not commonly used. The other forms of the word are contemner or contemnor. A person who is guilty of contempt of court is called a contemnor.
- The judge has asked the contemnor to submit an unconditional apology.

Bhushan was asked to apologize by the court but he refused to do so. He said, “If I... offer an insincere apology, that in my eyes would amount to the contempt of my conscience and of an institution that I hold in the highest esteem.” What he meant was that he cannot go against his conscience.

Let’s look at the collocations of the word. ‘Contempt’ collocates with these adjectives: deep, utter, cold, staggering and healthy. Examples:
- I have registered my utter contempt for his nasty behaviour.
- It is nothing wrong to have a healthy contempt for authority.

Some of the verbs that collocate with ‘contempt’ are: feel, have, betray, display, show, develop. Examples:
- He has developed a deep contempt for religious fanatics.
- Your comments betray a staggering contempt for the truth.

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