A statement by several leading lawyers of India strongly criticising the Supreme Court’s decision to hold Prashant Bhushan guilty of criminal contempt for two tweets, has garnered well over 1,000 signatures and counting.
The statement by the lawyers expresses its “dismay” regarding the judgment of the apex court, saying that an “independent judiciary does not mean that judges are immune from scrutiny and comment.”
The signatories to the statement – which include Kamini Jaiswal, Shyam Divan, Navroz Seervai, Vrinda Grover, Dushyant Dave, Sanjay Hegde, Menaka Guruswamy and Karuna Nundy – have argued that it is the duty of lawyers to freely bring out any shortcomings to the notice of the Bar, Bench and public at large.
Although they note that not all of them agree with what Bhushan’s tweets say (about the CJI on a superbike and the role of the Supreme Court in the destruction of democracy in recent times), they are unanimously of the view that they did not amount to contempt.
“While Mr Prashant Bhushan as a lawyer of good standing of the Supreme Court, may not be an ordinary man, his tweets do not say anything out of the ordinary, other than what is routinely expressed about the court’s working in recent years by many on public fora and on social media. Even some retired judges of the Supreme Court have expressed somewhat similar views.”Statement by practicing lawyers regarding the Supreme Court’s contempt verdict against Prashant Bhushan
The lawyers warn that this judgment will not help with restoring the authority of the apex court in the eyes of the public, and will instead have a chilling effect on senior lawyers.
They note that even in the time of Indira Gandhi’s supersession of judges and thereafter, “it has been the Bar that has been the first to stand in defence of the independence of the judiciary. A bar silenced under the threat of contempt, will undermine the independence and ultimately the strength of the Court. A silenced bar, cannot lead to a strong court.”
After expressing their disappointment over the fact that the court declined to seek the opinion of Attorney General of India, KK Venugopal despite having asked him to be present for the case, the lawyers have suggested that the court should not give effect to the judgment until a larger bench of judges, sitting in regular open court proceedings after the COVID-19 pandemic dies down, review the standards of criminal contempt.
“We do believe that the Supreme Court will hear the Voice of the People expressed all around in last 72 hours on the subject and take corrective steps to prevent miscarriage of Justice and restore the confidence and respect that Citizens have general reposed in it,” the statement concludes by saying.
Since the court’s judgment on 14 August, there has been an outpouring of criticism from lawyers, academics and commentators about the verdict.