Vicarious liability in a contempt case? Contempt jurisdiction knows no such concept: Supreme Court

Supreme Court: In the case dealing with willful disobedience of the order passed by the Supreme Court in the year 2008 with respect to the levy made while upholding Section 21 of the Assam Agricultural Produce Market Act, 1972, the bench of Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MM Sundresh*,JJ has held that vicarious liability as a principle cannot be applied to a case of contempt and that the appellants cannot be implicated for alleged action of their subordinates.

The Court noticed that in the present case, it was the specific case of the appellants that they did not violate the directives of the court. Also, there was no material to either establish their knowledge on the action of their subordinates, or that they acted in collusion with each other.

In Ram Kishan v. Tarun Bajaj, (2014) 16 SCC 204, the Court explained that in order to punish a contemnor, it has to be established that disobedience of the order is “wilful”.

“The word “wilful” introduces a mental element and hence, requires looking into the mind of a person/contemnor by gauging his actions, which is an indication of one’s state of mind. “Wilful” means knowingly intentional, conscious, calculated and deliberate with full knowledge of consequences flowing therefrom. It excludes casual, accidental, bona fide or unintentional acts or genuine inability. Wilful acts does not encompass involuntarily or negligent actions. The act has to be done with a “bad purpose or 9 without justifiable excuse or stubbornly, obstinately or perversely”. Wilful act is to be distinguished from an act done carelessly, thoughtlessly, heedlessly or inadvertently. It does not include any act done negligently or involuntarily. The deliberate conduct of a person means that he knows what he is doing and intends to do the same. Therefore, there has to be a calculated action with evil motive on his part. Even if there is a disobedience of an order, but such disobedience is the result of some compelling circumstances under which it was not possible for the contemnor to comply with the order, the contemnor cannot be punished.”

Taking note of the aforementioned ruling and also the facts of the case at hand, the Court explained that the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 explains a civil contempt to mean a willful disobedience of a decision of the Court. Therefore, what is relevant is the “willful” disobedience. Knowledge acquires substantial importance qua a contempt order.

“Merely because a subordinate official acted in disregard of an order passed by the Court, a liability cannot be fastened on a higher official in the absence of knowledge.”

Further, when two views are possible, the element of willfulness vanishes as it involves a mental element. It is a deliberate, conscious and intentional act. What is required is a proof beyond reasonable doubt since the proceedings are quasi-criminal in nature.

Similarly, when a distinct mechanism is provided and that too, in the same judgment alleged to have been violated, a party has to exhaust the same before approaching the court in exercise of its jurisdiction under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. It is well open to the said party to contend that the benefit of the order passed has not been actually given, through separate proceedings while seeking appropriate relief but certainly not by way of a contempt proceeding. While dealing with a contempt petition, the Court is not expected to conduct a roving inquiry and go beyond the very judgment which was allegedly violated. The said principle has to be applied with more vigor when disputed questions of facts are involved and they were raised earlier but consciously not dealt with by creating a specific forum to decide the original proceedings.

[DR. U.N. BORA, EX. CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER v. ASSAM ROLLER FLOUR MILLS ASSOCIATION, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 968, decided on 26.10.2021]


*Judgment by: Justice MM Sundresh

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