‘High Court desisted from exercising contempt jurisdiction despite finding contemnor guilty’; Supreme Court sets aside Calcutta HC stay order

contempt jurisdiction

Supreme Court: In an appeal on the scope and extent of the contempt jurisdiction exercised by a High Court under Article 215 of the Constitution of India read with the provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, the division bench of Aniruddha Bose and Sanjay Kumar*, JJ. while setting aside the impugned order, said that the High Court clearly transgressed the scope and extent of its contempt jurisdiction.

Further, it remanded the matter to the High Court, as the High Court desisted from exercising contempt jurisdiction, owing to this misconceived measure, despite finding the contemnor guilty of willfully violating the status quo condition in the stay order.

The Division Bench of the Calcutta High Court held that the act of the contemnor was in willful disobedience to the stay order passed in the first appeal and was not only contemptuous but also illegal and invalid. However, instead of initiating proceedings for contempt, the Division Bench opined that justice would be subserved by vacating the stay order passed in the first appeal. Aggrieved by this turn of events, the contemnor filed this appeal.

The contemnor contended that it was not open to the High Court to vacate the stay order passed in the appeal in exercise of contempt jurisdiction. No steps were taken by the Trust to seek such relief in the appeal and the High Court ought not to have resorted to such action in the contempt case.

The Court noted that by order dated 27-01-2015, this Court stayed the operation of the impugned judgment passed by the High Court.

The Court took note of Sudhir Vasudeva v. M. George Ravishekaran, (2014) 3 SCC 373 ,wherein it was said that the Courts must not, therefore, travel beyond the four corners of the order which is alleged to have been flouted or enter questions that have not been dealt with or decided in the judgment or the order violation of which is alleged.

Further, it referred to Mazdoor Sangh v. Baranagore Jute Factory Plc., (2017) 5 SCC 506 , wherein it was held that the Court has a duty to issue appropriate directions for remedying or rectifying the things done in violation of the Court order and in that regard, the Court may even take restitutive measures at any stage of the proceedings.

The Court concluded that the principle is that in addition to punishing a contemnor for disobeying its orders, the Court can also ensure that such a contemnor does not continue to enjoy the benefits of his disobedience by merely suffering the punishment meted out to him.

The Court said that the situation in the present case is such that vacating of the stay order in the appeal by the High Court in exercise of contempt jurisdiction did not assume either a restitutive or a remedying character. Violation of the status quo condition in the stay order stood complete, even as per the High Court, and vacating of the stay order did not have the effect of restoring the parties to their original position or deny the contemnor the benefit of the disobedience which already stood concluded. Violation of a conditional stay order, in the usual course, would entail vacating in a properly constituted proceeding. By resorting to such a step while exercising contempt jurisdiction, the High Court was not acting in furtherance of the above-said principle.

The Court said that the concluded act in violation of the status quo order in relation to possession of the suit premises amounted to ‘civil contempt’ under Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, and warranted appropriate consequences under the provisions. However, without recourse to such a step, the High Court thought it fit to vacate the stay order in the appeal to enable the Trust to execute the decree. This action of the High Court clearly transgressed the scope and extent of its contempt jurisdiction and cannot be sustained. Thus, the Court set aside the impugned order to that extent.

Further, concerning the contention of the Trust that the stay order stood vacated automatically owing to the default by the Society in making deposits, the Court said that it is for the Trust to take appropriate steps. The Trust would be at liberty to take all such measures as are permissible in law in that regard, be it before the High Court or the Executing Court.

[Amit Kumar Das v. Shrimati Hutheesingh Tagore Charitable Trust, 2024 SCC OnLine SC 83, decided on 30-01-2024]

*Judgment Authored by: Justice Sanjay Kumar

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