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An Analysis Of The Law Of Civil Contempt

The administration of Justice is the most essential postulate of any civilized society, and justice cannot be rendered without the fear of sanction". The administration of justice cannot only be done effectively when consequences of inflicting injustice are met with the threat of sanction. It is this sanction or fear of punishment which takes the form of "civil contempt".

Section 2(1)(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 defines Civil Contempt in the following terms:
"Wilful disobedience of any judgement, degree, Writ or other process of Court or wilful breach of undertaking given to a Court". In this Article I will to attempt to explain what conduct constitutes Civil Contempt and what is not considered Civil Contempt through illustrative case-laws.

The origins of Contempt can be traced back to the ancient epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata where the King was the fountainhead of justice, and whoever did not follow his rulings was subject to punishment. The concept underwent a change in latter periods when the judicial functions of the kingdom were presided by the "Sabhapati", and the violators of the judicial rulings of the "Sabhapati" were subject to punishment in the strictest terms. The said concept was not codified and was subject to the whims and caprices of local rulers.

The concept of Contempt in its codified form is borrowed from England. In England the Courts of Record were vested since time immemorial to punish violators with Contempt and the first Indian Statute was passed in 1926, in British India.

We will now embark on a Case-Law analysis to discuss how the Court�s deal with the concept of Civil Contempt.

Liberal Approach:
The Court�s have in some instances interpreted Section 2(1)(b) of the Act in a "liberal manner" & have held the offense of Civil Contempt to be committed only when the disobedience is wholly wilful. Let us examine these Judicial pronouncements.
  1. Kinri Singh Vs Veer Singh(2022 Scc Online Del 81):

    In the instant case the Family Court in Saket passed orders for maintenance of the alleged contemnors wife and child. The Respondent�s wife moved the Delhi High Court alleging Civil Contempt as the Respondent refused to pay a sum of Rs 80,000/- (Eighty-thousand rupees only) for the nanny. The Delhi High Court opined that since the husband was in substantial compliance of the Family Court order and was paying maintenance regularly, it could not be said that the offense of Civil Contempt was committed. The Court held that orders of family courts are to be liberally interpreted, and not interpreted in a "stricto-sensu manner".
  2. Rama Narang Vs Ramesh Narang (Contempt Petition (Civil) No. 92 OF 2008):

    In the instant the Petitioner and Respondent�s were managing a family business together. They earlier had disputes, following which they had entered into a settlement agreement, in which they had agreed "not to approach Court seeking relief against each other. The Respondent�s approached the Hon�ble National Company Law Tribunal alleging that the Petitioner was not cooperating in the smooth running of the company, and sought directions under Section 241 and 242 of the Companies Act, 2013. The Petitioner contended that the act of approaching the Court itself constituted Civil Contempt under Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Court�s Act, 1971. The Supreme Court said that there was no" wilful breach of undertaking given of any proceeding of Court or breach of undertaking".
  3. Ahmed Ali Vs Superintendent Of Police (1987 CriLJ 1845):

    Release orders were issued with respect to a convict in prison in Assam. The IG of prisons did not receive the release order, and hence release of the aforesaid prisoner was not done. Contempt proceedings were started against the concerned person. The Court however stipulated that it is settled Law that "mere unintentional disobedience is not sufficient to hold one guilty of contempt, unless there is a degree of default or disobedience, & that guilt has been established beyond reasonable doubt". Hence no case for contempt made out.
  4. Dinesh Kumar Gupta Vs United Insurance Company (Civil Appeal No. 8839 OF 2010):

    United Insurance Company filed Writ against the order of a MACT Tribunal. The Ld. Single Judge stayed the impugned order and directed enquiry against the presiding officer. When the matter was called on hearing, the Ld. Single Judge saw that the previous order had not been complied with and directed Contempt proceeding against the Registry Official. The Supreme Court in Appeal said the disobedience was not intentional or wilful in nature, no case for Civil Contempt was made out.

Let us now examine the Conservative approach of the Court�s in dealing with the offense of Civil Contempt.

  1. Urban Infrastructure Real Estate Vs Dharmesh Jain (Contempt Petition (C) no. 940 of 2021):

    Factual Matrix- An arbitral Award dated 30.08.18 was passed in favour of the Petitioners. The Respondents filed an application under Section 34 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, the award was stayed subject to the condition that 50% of the awarded money would be deposited. They said money was not deposited and they approached the Supreme Court by way of Special Leave Petition, which was also dismissed. The Respondent�s made an application for re-call of the said order, which was dismissed which the Supreme Court observing that :"the money shall be deposited within 8 weeks, non-compliance of this order shall be taken very seriously" The Respondent did not follow the order and the Applicant�s filed a case for Civil Contempt.

    Supreme Court:
    The Hon�ble Apex Court rejected the arguments of the Respondent that merely because the order was executable under the Law it could not be said that the jurisdiction of the Court�s under the Contempt of Court�s Act, 1971 was ousted. The Court also said that that there was "intentional and wilful disobedience of Court order which constitutes Civil Contempt".
  2. Sonali Bhatia Vs Abhivansh Narang (Cont.Cas(C) 429/2021):

    In the aforesaid case the Family Court had passed orders for payment of maintenance in favour of wife. The husband refused to comply despite numerous reminders, and accordingly contempt proceedings were issued against the Respondent. The Respondent pleaded that he had taken loans, and that the said loans were re-paid by his father, the pleas were taken with a view to show financial difficulty. The Respondent refused to show his bank statements etc. In light of the Respondents conduct the Hon�ble Delhi High Court said that there was wilful disobedience of the Family Court which constituted contempt of Court.
  3. Suman Chadha Vs Central Bank Of India (Special Leave Petition (C) No.28592 of 2018):

    In the aforesaid case the Petitioner defaulted in payment of loan and the Respondent preferred proceedings under the SARFESI Act against the said Petitioner. The Petitioner preferred a Writ Petition against the said proceedings, the Petitioner undertook to deposit a sum of 7,00,00,000/- in favour of the Respondent herein. The payment made by the Petitioner in favour of the Respondent was via cheque, which was dishonoured in terms of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1882. The Hon�ble Apex Court stated that since the Petitioner has violated the undertaking given in a Court of Law, they are guilty of the offense of civil contempt under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.
  4. Rama Narang Vs Ramesh Narang (Contempt Petition (civil) 148 of 2003):

    In the aforesaid case 2 families had acrimonious disputes which lead to them filing Suits against each other. The disputes were settled in the form of a Compromise Decree. One of the parties violated the terms of the compromise decree which led to the contempt petition. The Apex Court held that a compromise decree is a contract with the imprimatur of the Court, and therefore a violation of the consent order will amount to civil contempt.

In the above article we see how the Apex Court and the High Courts have interpreted the definition of Civil Contempt. We see that the Courts will not convict unless the disobedience is wholly wilful and made with the express intention of disobedience.

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