Jagan Mohan Reddy's faceoff with judiciary: Here's what law states on A-G's consent for criminal contempt cases
Attorney General KK Venugopal recently refused to give his consent to initiate criminal contempt proceedings against YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and his advisor
On 6 October, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy wrote a letter to Chief Justice of India SA Bobde alleging that the Andhra Pradesh High Court was being used to "destabilise and topple" his democratically elected government.
Ajeya Kallam, Press Advisor of the Government of Andhra Pradesh made the contents of the letter public in a subsequent press conference.
Reddy's letter to CJI Bobde had come following an order passed by Justice NV Ramana of the Andhra Pradesh High Court dated 16 September, 2020, directing pending prosecution of elected representatives to be taken up and disposed of expeditiously. According to reports, there are 31 criminal cases pending against the Andhra Pradesh chief minister.
The chief minister had claimed that the senior apex court judge was close to TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu and that a "former judge of the honourable Supreme Court placed this fact on record".
In the letter, Reddy had requested the CJI to look into the matter and consider initiating steps "as may be considered fit and proper to ensure that the state judiciary's neutrality is maintained".
After the letter became public, BJP leader and lawyer Ashwini Upadhyay wrote to Attorney General KK Venugopal, seeking his consent to initiate contempt proceedings against Reddy and his advisor.
He had said the letter by the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister "scandalises" the authority of both the Supreme Court and the High Court and interferes with judicial proceedings and the administration of justice.
Though Venugopal Monday termed as "prima facie contumacious" the conduct of the Andhra Pradesh chief minister and his principal advisor for making allegations against the judiciary, he declined to give his consent to initiate contempt proceedings against them, saying CJI Bobde was seized of the matter.
"...the entire case of contempt arises out of the letter... written by the Chief Minister directly to the Chief Justice of India and the subsequent press conference held by Kallam. The CJI is therefore seized of the matter. Hence, it would not be appropriate for me to deal with the matter," Venugopal said.
"For these reasons, I decline consent to initiate proceedings for criminal contempt of the Supreme Court," he said in his response to the contempt plea filed by BJP leader and lawyer Ashwini Upadhyay.
Is A-G's consent mandatory?
Taking the consent of the Attorney General is a condition precedent for initiating criminal contempt.
As per the Contempt of Court Act 1971, which lists out details of what qualifies as criminal contempt, the punishment, and method to follow, a court may take a criminal contempt case on its own motion or on a motion made by the Attorney General or any other person with the consent in writing of the Advocate-General.
When a criminal contempt plea is moved by a third person in the Supreme Court, permission has to be sought from the Attorney General or the Solicitor General of India. In case the criminal contempt case is filed in a high court, the law officer whose permission is to be sought is the Advocate-General of the State or any of the States for which the High Court has been established; whereas, in relation to the court of a judicial commissioner, it's the law officer as specified by the Central Government in the Official Gazette.
The requirement of permission for the Advocate General has been necessitated under Section 15 (1) b and Section 15 (2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1971 in all cases when a criminal contempt case is moved by a third person (in this case, Upadhyay).
As per Rule 3 stated in Part II of The Rules to Regulate Proceedings For Contempt of the Supreme Court, 1975, in case of contempt, which is other than a contempt case taken place outside the view or presence or hearing of a court or pending, a court may take action: (a) suo motu, or (b) on a petition made by Attorney General, or Solicitor General, or (c) on a petition made by any person, and in the case of a criminal contempt with the consent in writing of the Attorney General or the Solicitor General.
The criminal contempt against Reddy and his advisor falls under the third category, and hence Upadhyay needs the Attorney General's consent to move the criminal contempt plea.
The way ahead
As Attorney General Venugopal stated in his response, the matter is already seized with CJI Bobde. And if CJI Bobde deems it fit, he can under Section 15 (1) of the Contempt of Court Act 1971, take action on its own.
As per Section 2 of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971, "criminal contempt" means the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which:
(i) scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or
(ii) prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or
(iii) interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.
According to Upadhyay's letter, the actions of these two individuals "scandalises" the High Court of Andhra Pradesh and constitute grave criminal contempt of the Supreme Court of India and the said high court.
Attorney General, in his response to Upadhyay's letter, also opined a similar view. He said that he is of the opinion that "the timing itself of the letter, as well as its being placed in the public domain through a press conference could certainly be said to be suspect, in the background of the order passed by Justice Ramana, directing pending prosecution of elected representatives to be taken up and disposed of expeditiously".
The Supreme Court has not initiated any suo motu contempt action against Reddy and his advisor, but as the Attorney General stated, the matter is seized with the CJI, and one would hope to get some clarity in the coming days.
Whatever be the action of the court, the current controversy will certainly have a long-lasting impact on the independence of the judiciary.
With inputs from PTI
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