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Civil Contempt Must Establish Disobedience Is Willful, Deliberate And Full Knowledge Of Consequences

To Constitute Civil Contempt, It Must Be Established That Disobedience Is Wilful, Deliberate And With Full Knowledge Of Consequences: SC

Section 2 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971

Section 2 (a) of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 states Civil Contempt as wilful disobedience to the Order, Decree, Direction, any Judgment or Writ of the Court by any person or willfully breach of undertakings by a person given to a Court. Since Civil Contempt deprives a party of the benefit for which the Order/Judgment was made so these are the offences essential of private nature. In other words, a person who is entitled to get the benefit of the Court Order, this wrong is generally done to this person.

Contempt of Court also has certain essentials and these are as follows:

  1. Disobedience to any type of Court proceedings, its Orders, Judgment, decree, etc should be done �willfully' in case of Civil Contempt.
  2. In Criminal Contempt �publication' is the most important thing and this publication can be either spoken or written, or by words, or by signs, or by visible representation.
  3. The Court should make a �Valid Order' and this order should be in �knowledge' of the Respondent.
  4. The action of contemnor should be deliberate and also it should be clearly disregard of the Court's Order.

These essentials should be fulfilled while making someone accused of Contempt of Court.

Defences to Civil Contempt
A person who is accused of Civil Contempt of case can take the following defences:

  • Lack of Knowledge of the Order: A person can not be held liable for Contempt of Court if he does not know the Order given by the Court or he claims to be unaware of the Order. There is a duty binding on the successful party by the Courts that the Order that has passed should be served to the Individual by the post or personally or through the certified copy. It can be successfully pleaded by the contemner that the certified copy of the Order was not formally served to him.
  • The disobedience or the breach done should not be : If someone is pleading under this defence then he/she can say that the act done by him/her was not done willfully, it was just a mere accident or he/she can say that it is beyond their control. But this plead can only be successful if it found to be reasonable otherwise your plead can be discarded.
  • The Order that has disobeyed should be vague or ambiguous: If the Order passed by the Court is vague or ambiguous or this Order is not specific or complete in itself then a person can get the defence of contempt if he says something against that Order. In [R. N. Ramaul Vs State of Himachal Pradesh, AIR 1991 SC 1171], this defence has been taken by the Respondent. In this case, the Supreme Court has directed the Corporation of the Respondent to restore the promotion of the Petitioner from a particular date in the service. But the Respondent has not produced the monetary benefit for the given period and a Complaint was filed against him for Contempt of Court. He pleads for the defence on the given evidence that it has not mentioned by the Court in order to pay the monetary benefit. Finally, he gets the defence.
  • Orders involve more than one reasonable interpretation: If the Contempt of any Order declared by the Court and the Order seems to be given more than one reasonable and rational interpretation and the Respondent adopts one of those interpretations and works in accordance with that then he/she will not be liable for Contempt of Court.
  • Command of the Order is impossible: If compliance of the Order is impossible or it can not be done easily then it would be taken as a defence in the case of Contempt of Court. However, one should differentiate the case of impossibility with the case of mere difficulties. Because this defence can be given only in the case of the impossibility of doing an order.

On a common understanding Contempt means disgrace, scorn or disobedience. In law, it is an offence against dignity of a Court. The basic philosophy behind Contempt power is the authority to deal with any act or omission which obstructs or impedes the performance of important functions. To ensure this, Judiciary is vested with contempt powers.

Wilful disobedience to any Judgment, Decree, Direction, Order, Writ or other process of Court.
The term wilful as per the New Oxford illustrated Dictionary (1980 Ed.) means asserting or disposed to assert one's own will against instruction, persuasion etc., obstinately self-willed; deliberate, intentional showing perversity or self�will.

According to Black's Law Dictionary (8th Ed.) wilful means voluntarily and intentional, but necessarily malicious and wilfulness means:

  1. The fact or quality of acting purposely or by design; deliberateness; intention; wilfulness doesnot necessarily imply malice, but it involves more than just knowledge.
  2. The voluntary, intentional violation or disregard of a known legal duty.

Civil Contempt invloves wilful disobedience to the Order/Judgment of the Court. The meaning of wilful is explained by Bramwell, LJ, in [Lewis Vs The Great Western Railway Company, (1877) 3 QBD 195] as follows;
{Wilful misconduct means misconduct to which the will is a party, something opposed to accident or negligence.}

The same view was expressed by Lord Russel, L. J, in [R Vs Senior, (1895) All ER 511], when he observes
Wilfully means done deliberately.

Bowen, L. J, expains more elaborately in [Re, Young and Harston's Contract, (1885) 31 Ch. D 168] as follows:
The other word which it is sought to define is 'wilful'. That is a word of familiar use in every branch of law and although in some branches of the law, it may have a special meaning, it generally, as used in Courts of Law, implies nothing blameable, but merely that the person of whose action or default the expression is used is a free agent, and that what has been done arises from the spontaneous action of his will. It amounts to nothing more than this, that he knows what he is doing, and intends to do what he is doing, and is a free agent.

It is sometimes supposed that the will being a party to the disobedience is no more enough and that there should further be an element of obstinancy, rebellion or defiance. In [Worthington Vs Ad-lib Club Ltd., (1964) 3 All. ER 674] Stirling J, was construing the words wilfully disobeyed in Order 42, Rule 31 of the Rules of the Supreme Court in England.

The Rule provides mode of enforcing 'any judgment or order' against a corporation, which, it has 'wilfully disobeyed'. Stirling, J, held that to come within the Rule it was necessary to establish a 'continumacious disregard' of an Order/Judgment. He reached that conclusion because he felt himself bound by, what he thought was the ration of the decision of the Court of Appeal in [Fairclough & Sons Vs Manchester Ship Canal Co., (1897) WN 7].

For the same reason he did not follow the judgment of Chitty, J, in [A. G Vs Walthamstow Urban District Council, (1895) 11 TLR 533] and that of Warrington, J., in [Stancomb Vs Trawbridge Urban District Council, (1910) 2 Ch. 190]. However, the Judgment of Stirling, J. has been dissented from, and his understanding of the decision of the Court of Appeal in [Fairclough & Sons Vs Manchester Ship Canal Co. (supra) has been held to be wrong.

In [Steiner Product Ltd. Vs Willy Steiner Ltd., (1966) 2 All. ER 387] Stamp, J, said;
I do not think that the Court of Appeal intended to use the word contumaciously as meaning something different from 'wilfully', for to will not, in my judgment, tolerate. Chitty, J., took the view that disobedience which was worse than casual, accidental or unintentional must be regarded as wilful, in A. G Vs Walthamstow Urban District Council (supra), took a similar view.

The ordinary meaning of wilful, as defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is 'that for which complusion or ignorance or accident cannot be pleaded as an excuse, intentional, deliberate'.
In [Knight Vs Clifton, (1971) 2 All. ER 378], the Court of Appeal has disapproved the view of Stirling J. and endorsed that of Megaw, J., impliedly, if not expressesly.

The Judgment of Stirling. J., has been overruled by Sachs, L. J., agreeing with Russel, L. J, that 'contumacity need not be proved' in order to establish 'wilfulness'. This has been confirmed by the decision of the House of Lrds in [Heatons Transport Vs T. G, W. U, (1973) AC 15].

In Contempt Petition (Civil) No. 404/2019 in Civil Appeal No. 105/2011 titled The Workmen Through The Convenor FCI Labour Federation Vs Ravuthar Dawood Naseem, the Supreme Court declined to initiate Civil Contempt proceedings against the Food Corporation of India, observing that the alleged disobedience was neither wilful nor deliberate.

The Petitioners had initiated industrial disputes bearing I. D. No. 39/1992 and I.D. No. 55/1993 before the Industrial Tribunal, Tamil Nadu, Chennai, under Section 10 (1)(d) of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 seeking directions to the Respondent� - Food Corporation of India to regularise and departmentalise the concerned workers.

The Industrial Tribunal, Tamil Nadu, Chennai, Vide its Award dated 29.07.1998 passed the following directions;
� Therefore, the services of workmen employed in different food storage depots of the Food Corporation of India in South India where notification have been issued prohibiting engagement of contract labour u/s 10 (1) of the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, are entitled to be regularised, from the date of notification concerning each depot.

Feeling aggrieved, the Food Corporation of India carried the matter before the Division Bench of the Madras High Court by way of Writ Appeal Nos. 3382/2003 and 3383/2003. The Division Bench dismissed the said Writ Appeals Vide Judgment & Order dated 13.12.2006 having agreed with the conclusion arrived at by the Tribunal in passing Awards and the reasoning of the Learned Single Judge in confirming the same.

The Food Corporation of India filed Special Leave Petitions before Supreme Court of India, which were converted into Civil Appeal Nos. 10499/2011 and 10511/2011. Both appeals were dismissed by a common Judgment & Order dated 20.08.2018 upholding the view taken by the Tribunal and the Madras High Court.

The Contempt Petitions were filed by several groups of Workmen who sought regularization and departmentalization in the Food Corporation of India. They alleged that the Food Corporation of India had had failed to regularize and departmentalize them as per the terms of the orders of the Industrial Tribunal, which were affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2018.

The Food Corporation of India contended that it has already regularised the eligible employees under Direct Payment System (DPS) and nothing further was required to be done. It was urged that in the References before the Industrial Tribunal, the claim was restricted to regularisation of the concerned employees after abolition of the Contract Labour System. There was no prayer for absorbing the concerned employees under any specific system of regular labour prevailing in the Food Corporation of India.

The Food Corporation of India has four systems of labour engagement, namely:

  1. Departmental Labour System,
  2. Direct Payment System,
  3. No �Work �No� Pay System and
  4. Mate System.

The Food Corporation of India submitted that there was no specific direction to regularize the employees in any particular system, and hence their engagement under Direct Payment System was sufficient compliance of the Court directions.

A Bench comprising Justices A. M. Khanwilkar & Dinesh Maheshwari agreed with the stand of Food Corporation of India. The Supreme Court referred to the decision in [Ram Kishan Vs. Tarun Bajaj & Ors, (2014) 16 SCC 204], wherein, the contours for initiating Civil Contempt action were delineated.

In paragraphs 11, 12 and 15 of the reported decision, the Court observed thus:
11. Contempt jurisdiction conferred onto the law Courts power to punish an offender for his wilful disobedience/contumacious conduct or obstruction to the majesty of law, for the reason that respect and authority commanded by the Courts of Law are the greatest guarantee to an ordinary citizens that his rights shall be protected and the entire democratic fabric of the society will crumble down if the respect of the Judiciary is undermined.

Undoubtedly, the Contempt jurisdiction is a powerful weapon in the hands of the Courts of law but that by itself operates as a string of caution and unless, thus, otherwise satisfied beyond reasonable doubt, it would neither fair nor reasonable for the Law Courts to exercise jurisdiction under the Act. The proceedings are quasi-criminal in nature, and therefore, standard of proof required in these proceedings is beyond all reasonable doubt. It would rather be hazardous to impose sentence for Contempt on the authorities in exercise of Contempt jurisdiction on mere probabilities.


  1. V. G. Nigam & Ors. Vs Kedar Nath Gupta & Anr., AIR 1992 SC 2153;
  2. Chhotu Ram Vs Urvashi Gulati & Anr., AIR 2001 SC 3468;
  3. Anil Ratan Sarkar & Ors. Vs Hirak Ghosh & Ors., AIR 2002 SC 1405
  4. Bank of Baroda Vs Sadruddin Hasan Daya & Anr., AIR 2004 SC 942
  5. Sahdeo alias Saddeo Singh Vs State of U. P & Ors., (2010) 3 SCC 705; and
  6. National Fertilizers Ltd. Vs Tuncay Alankus & Anr. AIR 2013 SC 1299).

12. Thus, 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 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, bonafide 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 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.

Committal or sequestration will not be ordered unless Contempt involves a degree of default or misconduct.

  1. S. Sundaram Pillai etc Vs V. R. Pattabiraman, AIR 1985 SC 582;
  2. Rakapalli Raja Rama Gopala Rao Vs Naragani Govinda Sehararao, AIR 1989 SC 2185;
  3. Niaz Mohammad & Ors. etc. etc. Vs. State of Haryana & Ors. AIR 1995 SC 308
  4. Chordia Automobiles Vs S. Moosa, AIR 2000 SC 1880;
  5. M/S Ashok Paper Kangar Union & Ors. Vs Dharam Godha & Ors., AIR 2004 SC 105;
  6. State of Orissa & Ors. Vs Md. Illiyas, AIR 2006 SC 258; and
  7. Uniworth Textiles Ltd. Vs CCE Raipur, (2013) 9 SCC 753.

15. It is well settled principle of law that if two interpretations are possible, and if the action is not contumacious, a contempt proceeding would not be maintainable. The effect and purport of the order is to be taken into consideration and the same must be read in its entirety. Therefore, the element of willingness is an indispensable requirement to bring home the charge within the meaning of the Act. (See: Sushila Raje Holkar Vs Anil Kak (Retd.), AIR 2008 (Supp-2) SC 1837; and Three Cheers Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. & Ors. Vs C. E. S. C Ltd., AIR 2009 SC 735).

It was observed in that Judgment: 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 was also observed in that precedent:
It is well�-settled principle of law that if two interpretations are possible, and if the action is not contumacious, a Contempt proceeding would not be maintainable.

In the light of the settled principles, the Bench observed in the instant case:
Suffice it to observe that to constitute Civil Contempt, it must be established that disobedience of the order is wilful, deliberate and with full knowledge of consequences flowing therefrom.
The Bench noted that there was no specific direction by the Tribunal to regularize the employees in any particular stream. The High Court and the Supreme Court merely affirmed the directions of the Tribunal;

.............the issue as to regularisation of the concerned workmen under particular labour system had not been put in issue before the Tribunal and upto this Court. A general direction came to be issued to regularise and departmentalise them. Resultantly, the Respondents were left with the only option to regularise the concerned workmen as per the extant applicable Policy of the Organisation, under the Direct Payment System, the Court noted.

The Court dismissed the Petitions, observing;
Suffice it to observe that no case for initiating Contempt action against the Respondent Corporation and its Officers has been made out. We need not, therefore, analyse any other aspect of the matter, which would require rewriting of the Judgments on the basis of which this Contempt action has been instituted.

That cannot be countenanced in Contempt proceedings.
Disobedience of the Court's Order/Judgment strikes at the very root of the Rule of Law on which our system of governance is based. Power to punish for contempt is necessary for the maintenance of effective legal system. It is exercised to prevent perversion of the Course of Justice.

Power to punish for contempt is to be resorted to when there is clear violation of the Court's Order/Judgment. Since notice of contempt and punishment for contempt is of far reaching consequences, the contempt power should be invoked only when a clear case of wilful disobedience of the Court's Order/Judgment has been made out. Every infraction of the Court's Order/Judgment does not amount to Contempt of Court. It is only a wilful and deliberate violation of the Court's Order/Judgment and contumacious conduct on the part of the contemnor which is to be condemned in contempt proceedings.

Mere disobedience of an Order/Judgment may not be sufficient to amount to a civil contempt within meaning of Section 2 (b) of Contempt of Court Act, 1971 the element of willingness is an indispensable requirement to bring home the charge within the meaning of the Act.

Though disregard of the Court's Order/Judgment may, by itself, amount to contempt even in the absence of evidence of disobedience, it would still be necessary to prove that the disregard was wilful and not bonafide. An action in contempt is against contumacious conduct which disregards Justice. A mere breach of the Order/Judgment is not contempt. It must amount to wilful and disdainful disregard of process of Justice.

Dinesh Singh Chauhan, Advocate, J&K High Court of Judicature, Jammu.
[email protected], [email protected]

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