In a spree of contempt of court proceedings initiated against PML-N leadership, the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) has convicted Talal Chaudhry for he spoke some bitter truths in January this year. The judgments convicting leaders of PML-N one after another for contempt of court charges give the impression the legislation, Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003 under which the proceedings are initiated, is used to protect judges from criticism and public scrutiny, not the courts.

The question that arises from the judgment of the court is this: Whether criticism of Judges and the circumstances under which they took oath in the past make anyone contemptuous of the court? Ideally, it should not amount to contempt of court.

The comments that Talal made did not affect the administration of the justice in any way. What will be the implication of such judgments? The answer is that harsh judgments will discourage people from exercising their fundamental right of having an opinion without interference. Orders like these can curtail the already shrunk right to freedom of expression of the people.

The court going against people who criticise the judiciary for providing support to military dictators by taking an oath or giving the impression of being biased against one group of people will face many such criticisms in future. In fact, protecting the nebulous “honour” of the court with the imposition of harsh penalties is a time consuming and futile exercise when so many real issues exist.

In the proceedings against Talal, the court overlooked the test of liability and real risk. The court should have taken into account the nature of Talal’s comment to determine if his comments were a real risk, as opposed to a remote possibility, that public confidence in the judicial system would be undermined.

The SCP should have taken into the consideration that justice is not a cloistered virtue: she must be allowed to suffer the scrutiny and outspoken comments of ordinary men. The Australian High Court in Nationwide News Pvt. Ltd. V. Wills sums up the debate on contempt of court succinctly, “The revelation of truth and the making of a fair criticism based on fact do not amount to a contempt of court though the truth revealed or the criticism made is such as to deprive the court or judge of public confidence….”

The society we are living in is a free marketplace of ideas. Criticism about the judicial system or the judges should be welcomed if it does not impair the administration of justice. And the comments of Talal were short of hampering the administration of justice.