Important Judgments on Contempt Law in India in India

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May 23, 2018

The contempt law in India is governed by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 . The Act defines civil contempt as willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or willful breach of an undertaking given to a court. . Section 2(b) of the 1971 Act not only encompasses willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order etc. of a court, it also takes in its fold a willful breach of an undertaking given to a court

The Act empowers the Court to punish acts of contempt. The Supreme Court and High Courts by virtue of being courts of record, have the inherent jurisdiction to punish for contempt of court and the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

Some important decisions on Contempt Law are illustrated below to render a holistic understanding of the subject:

Meaning of Willful Disobedience u/Section 2(b) of Contempt of Courts Act, 1971

Ashok Paper Kamgar Union and Ors. vs Dharam Godha And Ors.[1]In this case, the Supreme Court examined the provision of Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 that defines the term civil contempt and held that the term ‘Willful’ under Section 2(b) means an act or omission which is done voluntarily and intentionally and with the specific intent to do something the law forbids or with the specific intent to fail to do something the law requires to be done, that is to say with bad purpose either to disobey or to disregard the law.

It signifies a deliberate action done with evil intent or with a bad motive or purpose. Therefore, in order to constitute contempt the order of the Court must be of such a nature which is capable of execution by the person charged in normal circumstances. It should not require any extra ordinary effort nor should be dependent, either wholly or in part, upon any act or omission of a third party for its compliance. This has to be judged having regard to the facts and circumstances of each case.

Willful Breach of Undertaking is a Civil Contempt

Balasubramaniyam v. P. Janakaraju & Anr.[2]In this case, the High Court of Karnataka observed that the orders of Courts have to be obeyed unless and until they are set aside in appeal/revision.

While elucidating on the principles relating to contempt law the Court remarked that the definition of Civil Contempt includes willful breach of an undertaking given to a Court. Public interest requires that solemn undertakings given to a Court with the intention of obtaining any benefit should not be breached willfully. No litigant can be allowed to wriggle away from a solemn undertaking given to the Court, as it will open dangerous trends and defeat the very purpose of giving undertakings to Court.

It was further observed that once litigants give an undertaking to a Court, they should comply with it in all circumstances, the only exceptions being fraud or statutory bar. They cannot break an undertaking with impunity and then attempt to justify it. The breach of solemn undertaking given to a Court is a serious matter and will have to be dealt with seriously.

Court’s Constitutional Right to Punish for Contempt

Bar Association vs. Union of India & Anr.[3]– In this case, the Supreme Court dwelled into the constitutional powers vested in it under Article 129 read with Article 142(2) of the Constitution of India and the power of the High Court under Article 215 of the Constitution to punish for contempt and held as follows:-

The Apex Court while examining this power remarked that no act of parliament can take away the inherent jurisdiction of the Court of Record to punish for contempt and the Parliament’s power of legislation on the subject cannot, therefore, be so exercised as to stultify the status and dignity of the Supreme Court and/or the High Courts, though such a legislation may serve as a guide for the determination of the nature of punishment which this court may impose in the case of established contempt.

Sudhakar Prasad vs. Govt. of A.P. and Ors.[4] – In this case also the Supreme Court once again declared that the powers of contempt are inherent in nature and the provisions of the Constitution only recognize the said pre-existing situation.

That the provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 are in addition to and not in derogation of Articles 129 and 215 of the Constitution. The provisions of Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 cannot be used for limiting or regulating the exercise of jurisdiction contemplated by the said two Articles.

Here it was additionally held by the Apex Court that the High Court cannot create or assume power to inflict a new type of punishment other than the one recognized and accepted by Section 12 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

Violation of Undertaking/Consent Terms is Contempt

Rama Narang vs. Ramesh Narang and Anr.[5]In this case, the respondent argued relating to the maintainability of the contempt petition filed by the petitioner before Supreme Court by taking a plea that the consent order recorded before the court did not contain an undertaking or an injunction of the court and hence could not form the basis of any proceedings for contempt.

The Supreme Court in the aforesaid case held that the consent terms arrived at between the parties before it, having been incorporated in the order passed by the court, any violation of the said terms of the consent order and connected matters would tantamount to violation of the Court’s order and therefore, be punishable under the first limb of Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

Contempt Jurisdiction cannot be used to enforce a Decree Passed in a Civil Suit

Kanwar Singh Saini v. High Court of Delhi[6] – In the case the Supreme Court held that once the suit stood decreed, if there is a grievance of non-compliance with the terms of the decree passed in the suit, a remedy is available to the aggrieved person to approach the Execution Court but resort cannot had to contempt proceedings, by invoking Order XXXIX Rule 2A of the CPC, as such a provision is available only during the pendency of the suit and not after the conclusion of the trial. Thus, it was held by the Apex Court that contempt jurisdiction cannot be used to enforce a decree passed in a civil suit.

D.N. Taneja vs. Bhajan Lal[7] – In this case the Supreme Court stated that any person, who moves the court for contempt, only brings to the notice of the court certain facts constituting contempt of court. After furnishing the said information, he may assist the court but at the end of the day, there are only two parties in such proceedings, the court and the contemnor.

[1] AIR 2004 SC 105

[2] 2004 (5) Kar. LJ 338

[3] (1998) 4 SCC 409

[4] (2001) 1 SCC 516

[5] 2006(11) SCC 114

[6] CRIMINAL APPEAL NO. 1798 of 2009

[7] (1988) 3 SCC 26