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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Criminal Contempt of Court : The Law

The Supreme Court in Muthu Karuppan vs Parithi Ilamvazhuthi & Anr. has discussed the law relating to Criminal Contempt of Court under S. 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. The relevant extracts from the judgment are reproduced hereinbelow;

6) In order to understand the above issue, it is relevant to refer Section 2(c) of the Act which defines criminal contempt as:

"(c) "criminal contempt" means the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which-

(i) scandalizes or tends to scandalize, of lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or

(ii) prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or

(iii) interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner."

7) Giving false evidence by filing false affidavit is an evil which must be effectively curbed with a strong hand. Prosecution should be ordered when it is considered expedient in the interest of justice to punish the delinquent, but there must be a prima facie case of "deliberate falsehood" on a matter of substance and the court should be satisfied that there is a reasonable foundation for the charge. 

8) In a series of decisions, this Court held that the enquiry/contempt proceedings should be initiated by the court in exceptional circumstances where the court is of the opinion that perjury has been committed by a party deliberately to have some beneficial order from the court. There must be grounds of a nature higher than mere surmise or suspicion for initiating such proceedings. There must be distinct evidence of the commission of an offence by such a person as mere suspicion cannot bring home the charge of making false statement, more so, the court has to determine as on facts whether it is expedient in the interest of justice to enquire into offence which appears to have been committed.

9) The contempt proceedings being quasi criminal in nature, burden and standard of proof is the same as required in criminal cases. The charges have to be framed as per the statutory rules framed for the purpose and proved beyond reasonable doubt keeping in mind that the alleged contemnor is entitled to the benefit of doubt. Law does not permit imposing any punishment in contempt proceedings on mere probabilities, equally, the court cannot punish the alleged contemnor without any foundation merely on conjectures and surmises. As observed above, the contempt proceeding being quasi criminal in nature require strict adherence to the procedure prescribed under the rules applicable in such proceedings.

10) In exercise of the powers conferred on the High Court under Articles 215 and 225 of the Constitution of India and in terms of Section 23 of the Act, the Madras High Court Contempt of Court Rules, 1975 (in short `the Rules') have been framed. The said Rules prescribe procedure for initiating contempt and various steps to be adhered to. By drawing our attention to the Rules, Mr. Ganguli, learned senior counsel for the appellant submitted that Rules 4 and 8 have not been complied with. By emphasizing the principles in paras 12 and 16 of the decision of this Court in R.S. Sujatha vs. State of Karnataka & Ors., 2010 (12) Scale 556, learned senior counsel submitted that the contempt proceedings being quasi criminal in nature require strict adherence to the procedure prescribed under the rules applicable to such proceedings. He also pointed out that while sending notice, relevant documents have not been enclosed and the consent of Advocate General was not obtained for initiating contempt proceedings against the appellant. Insofar as the documents referred to being certain orders of the court, no serious objection was taken note of for not sending the same.

Consent of the Advocate General

11) The relevant provision which deals with cognizance of criminal contempt in other cases is Section 15 of the Act which reads as under:

"15. Cognizance of criminal contempt in other cases.--(1) In the case of a criminal contempt, other than a contempt referred to in Section 14, the Supreme Court or the High Court may take action on its own motion or on a motion made by--

(a) the Advocate-General, or

(b) any other person, with the consent in writing to the Advocate-General, or

(c) in relation to the High Court for the Union territory of Delhi, such Law Officer as the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify in this behalf, or any other person, with the consent in writing of such Law Officer."

The whole object of prescribing procedural mode of taking cognizance is to safeguard the valuable time of the Court from being wasted by frivolous contempt petitions. In State of Kerala vs. M.S. Mani & Ors., (2001) 8 SCC 82, this Court held that the requirement of obtaining prior consent of the Advocate General in writing for initiating proceedings of criminal contempt is mandatory and failure to obtain prior consent would render the motion non-maintainable. In case, a party obtains consent subsequent to filing of the petition, it would not cure the initial defect and thus, the petition would not become maintainable.

12) In Bal Thackrey vs. Harish Pimpalkhute & Anr., AIR 2005 SC 396, this Court held that in absence of the consent of the Advocate General in respect of a criminal contempt filed by a party under Section 15 of the Act, taking suo motu action for contempt without a prayer, was not maintainable. 

13) However, in Amicus Curiae vs. Prashant Bhushan and Anr., (2010) 7 SCC 592, this Court has considered the earlier judgments and held that in a rare case, even if the cognizance is deemed to have been taken in terms of Rule 3(c) of the Rules to Regulate Proceedings for Contempt of the Supreme Court, 1975, without the consent of the Attorney General or the Solicitor General, the proceedings must be held to be maintainable in view of the fact that the issues involved in the proceedings had far reaching greater ramifications and impact on the administration of justice and on the justice delivery system and the credibility of the court in the eyes of general public.

14) It is clear from the recent decision of this Court in Prashant Bhushan's case (supra) that if the issue involved in the proceedings had greater impact on the administration of justice and on the justice delivery system, the court is competent to go into the contempt proceedings even without the consent of the Advocate General as the case may be.

...

23) We have already pointed out that while dealing with criminal contempt in terms of Section 2(c) of the Act, strict procedures are to be adhered. In a series of decisions, this Court has held that jurisdiction to initiate proceedings for contempt as also the jurisdiction to punish for contempt are discretionary with the court. Contempt generally and criminal contempt certainly is a matter between the court and the alleged contemnor. No one can compel or demand as of right initiation of proceedings for contempt. The person filing an application or petition before the court does not become a complainant or petitioner in the proceedings. He is just an informer or relator. His duty ends with the facts being brought to the notice of the court. It is thereafter for the court to act on such information or not. [Vide Om Prakash Jaiswal vs. D.K. Mittal, (2000) 3 SCC 171] Further Section 15 of the Act as well as the Madras High Court Contempt of Court Rules insist that, particularly, for initiation of criminal contempt, consent of the Advocate General is required. Any deviation from the prescribed Rules should not be accepted or condoned lightly and must be deemed to be fatal to the proceedings taken to initiate action for contempt. In the present case, the above provisions have not been strictly adhered to and even the notice issued by the then Division Bench merely sought for explanation from the appellant about the allegations made by Respondent No. 1.

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