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Written by: Shruti Srivastava (Intern)

Edited by: Anubhav Yadav (Content Head & Developer)

The Supreme Court recently observed that the principle of vicarious liability cannot be applied to a contempt case. While exercising its appellate jurisdiction, the court held that civil contempt requires wilful disobedience and hence, the disregard of subordinate officials towards a court order cannot be used to hold the higher officials liable for contempt of court, by virtue of vicarious liability.

Background of the Case:

By a 2006 amendment, Section 21A was inserted in the Assam Agricultural Produce Market Act, 1972. This amendment facilitated the Assam State Agricultural Marketing Board to levy and collect cess for the marketing committees in notified areas, in addition to their already existing powers. This amendment was later challenged before the Guwahati High Court, which held the impugned section to be constitutionally valid. The court also held that this would apply to only those cases where the trader fails to establish that there is direct evidence of sale or purchase having been undertaken outside the market area.

Later, a contempt petition was filed before the High Court, alleging that the orders passed by it with respect to direct evidence were not complied by members of the Board. While examining the contempt petition, the Division Bench went into the factual details and held the appellants liable for committing a contumacious act.

Apex Court’s Decision:

The court, at the outset, mentioned that it was dealing with a civil contempt case, one which essentially requires the knowledge of disobeying the court. In the present case, however, higher officials were held guilty of contempt for the lackadaisical attitude of their subordinates towards the High Court order, which is not right in law. It was held that because the civil contempt proceedings are quasi-criminal in nature, the wilfulness and the mental element have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Apart from that, the court advised the party which initiated the contempt proceedings to resort to the other recourse mentioned as a distinct mechanism in the same judgment alleged to have been violated, before availing to the Contempt of Courts Act. On the factual inquiry committed by the High Court, the apex court held that conducting a roving inquiry is not expected of a court while dealing with a contempt case.

Reiterating this principle of law, it referred to the observations made by it in the case of Hukum Chand Deswal v. Satish Raj Deswal, in which the landmark judgment of Ram Kishan v. Tarun Bajaj has been quoted. These judgments highlight the ability of a court to punish a contemnor for his deliberate misconduct that violates its orders. But, it also poses a caveat to using this power judiciously as it would be unfair for the courts to exercise jurisdiction under this act without the mental element of the contemnor being proved beyond a reasonable doubt, given the quasi-criminal nature of the proceedings.

Concluding its stance, the court held that there was no case of wilful disobedience and hence, the appellants cannot be held liable for contempt. It also held that the parties are free to pursue their claims in execution proceedings or any other proceedings, as may be permissible in law in respect of the issues under consideration.

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