An analysis of the civil contempt jurisdiction of Indian Civil Courts
In India, as also across the globe, courts of law demand strict adherence to their directions. This becomes necessary, to maintain the dignity of the Courts and uphold the majesty of law. However, the ground reality remains, that parties do not always adhere to such directions. In fact, despite one’s best intentions, it may simply be impossible to comply with the directions of a Court. Consequences of varying magnitude may ensue from such non-compliance, in respect of both, the rights of the parties as well as remedial directions from the Court. The present article seeks to throw light on the various factors that a civil court in India will consider, while exercising its civil contempt jurisdiction. The reader may note that the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 also covers instances of criminal contempt, which jurisdiction, broadly speaking, is triggered when a person (i) publishes derogatory content about the Court; (ii) prejudices or interferes with any judicial proceedings; and (iii) obstructs the administration of justice in any manner.
II. What does the Court look for before ruling on contempt?
It is necessary for the Courts to ascertain, that the basic requirements for exercise of civil contempt jurisdiction have been met. These basic criteria are (i) whether a decree, direction, writ or proceeding has been issued by the Court; or (ii) whether an ‘undertaking’ has been given to a Court; and (iii) whether there is a ‘wilful’ disobedience of such decree, direction, writ, proceeding or undertaking. It is of paramount importance for the Court to ascertain, whether the non-compliance has been ‘wilful’. The Courts have repeatedly expressed an unwillingness to hold a party guilty of contempt when the non-compliance is on account of compelling circumstances or mere inadvertence. Only calculated acts with full knowledge of consequences have been held to be contumacious.This conservative view has been adopted by Indian Courts since, once held guilty for civil contempt, a party may be committed to prison; an outcome that is very serious and impacts a person’s right to liberty.
1 (2010) 12 SCC 770 Dinesh Kumar Gupta vs. United India Insurance Co. Ltd.
2 (2014) 16 SCC 204 Ram Kishan vs. Tarun Bajaj and Ors.
3 (1980) 2 SCC 360 Jolly George Verghese and Anr. vs. The Bank of Cochin
4 (2000) 4 SCC 400 R.N. Dey & Ors. vs. Bhagyabati Pramanik & Ors.
III. When have the Courts refused to hold parties guilty of contempt?
Once proceedings for civil contempt have been instituted, the adjudication becomes one between the Court and the contemnor. Once satisfied about the existence of a wilful act of contempt as described above, the Courts also evaluate, if an alternate remedy exists for the aggrieved party. For instance, if a decree has been passed in favour of a party, default in compliance with the directions contained therein, ought to result in an application for enforcement as envisaged under civil procedure and not proceedings for contempt. Given the
quasi-criminal nature of the proceedings which can result in grave consequences, Courts also insist on being satisfied beyond reasonable doubt, about the contumacious act of a party.
If deliberate disobedience of a Court’s directions were to be pardoned, the faith reposed by the people in the judiciary would stand seriously jeopardised. Courts in India have also observed from time to time, that being the greatest guarantee to the ordinary citizen, the majesty of the Courts in the minds of the people cannot be permitted to be distorted. An aggrieved party would ardently hope that a Court comes down heavily on a non-compliant party however, given the drastic consequences that follow, Courts have chosen to exercise this jurisdiction very sparingly. This is more so, since committing a non-compliant party to prison, would rarely remedy the consequence of such non-compliance. In this background, as regards legal strategy, a party desirous of initiating proceedings for civil contempt must carefully evaluate if the desired outcome can, in fact, be achieved through such steps.