Containing contempt

Written by Indu Bhan | Indu Bhan | Updated: Mar 13 2014, 08:52am hrs
Ordering the arrest of Sahara group chief Subrata Roy on the grounds of contempt of court, the Supreme Court has sent out a stern message. Roy failed to appear before the apex court in his ongoing legal battle with market regulator Sebi.

The apex court issued a non-bailable warrant in a civil contempt proceeding for non-compliance of its August 31, 2012, order, asking two Sahara group firms to refund R24,000 crore illegally raised in 2008 through a convertible-bond scheme from 3 crore poor investors lacking access to formal banking.

The business tycoon was arrested on March 4 from his residence in Lucknow. Roy had issued an unconditional apology and an emotional appeal to the court to allow him to be with his ailing 92-year-old mother but the Supreme Court was not impressed.

However, Roys is not the only instance of the court getting tough over contempt.

Actor Rajpal Yadav was sentenced to 10 days imprisonment by the Delhi High Court for an offence in December last year while his wife, in view of the fact that she had to take care of a child, was awarded the punishment of having to remain in the courtroom till the rising of the judge. The couple had been avoiding appearance before the court in a recovery suit. Senior income tax commissioner Sanjay Srivastava was sentenced to 15 days of imprisonment for contempt by the Delhi High Court in January. He had allegedly continued to pass lewd and sexist remarks against his female colleagues despite the court warnings.

Though in every contempt law there is a provision for tendering an apology, the apex court, in view of its earlier judgments, feels that the unconditional apology after wilful violation of its orders will not entitle those facing contempt charges to any mercy.

This is not the first time that the apex court has taken such a strong view. The Supreme Court, in a recent casethe State of MP vs Suresh Narayan Vijayvargiya & Orssaid that disobedience of an order of the court, which is wilful can erode the faith and confidence reposed by the people in the judiciary and undermines rule of law. Once the court passes an order, the parties cannot avoid implementation of that order by seeking refuge under any statutory rule and it is not open to the parties to go behind the order and truncate the effect of those orders.

Noting that the apology route was often taken post facto, the apex court came down heavily on a medical college in Madhya Pradesh run by Vijayvargiya for admitting more students in MBBS course than what was permitted by it in 2009, saying: To maintain sanctity of the orders of this court and to give a message that the parties cannot get away by merely tendering an unconditional and unqualified apology after enjoying the fruits of their illegality.

Even lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan is facing contempt charges for making allegations of corruption against some Supreme Court judges in an interview in September 2009. So does Tehelka co-founder Tarun Tejpal for publishing Bhushans interview.

The main objective behind the contempt law is that no one should disobey court orders, interfere with judicial proceedings, or obstruct the administration of justice and lower the authority of the court.

Under Indian law, contempt of court has been divided into two categoriescivil contempt and criminal contempt. A civil contempt is a failure to obey the courts order issued for the benefit of the opposing party. A criminal contempt is conduct that is directed against the dignity and authority of the court and is essentially a wilful disobedience of the order of a court.

While the Supreme Court and the high courts have inherent powers to punish anyone for their contempt (Articles 129 & 215 of the Constitution of India), restraint is generally exercised.