CONTEMPT PETITION (MD) SR NO.11505 OF 2020 M.DHANDAPANI, J. The contempt petition has been filed by the petitioner alleging noncompliance of the order dated 27.4.2018 passed by this Court in W.P. (MD) No. 9842 of 2018. 2. This Court, vide the aforesaid order
CONTEMPT PETITION (MD) SR NO.11505 OF 2020 M.DHANDAPANI, J.
The contempt petition has been filed by the petitioner alleging noncompliance of the order dated 27.4.2018 passed by this Court in W.P. (MD) No.
9842 of 2018.
2. This Court, vide the aforesaid order, had allowed the writ petition by setting aside the impugned order and remitted the matter to the 2nd respondent to take note of the observations made in the order culled out from the original service register, verify the relevant proceedings and fix the proper Grade Pay to the petitioner and complete the process within a period of eight weeks from the date of receipt of a copy of the order.
3. Alleging willful disobedience and non-compliance of the aforesaid order, the petition has been presented before the Registry, which has been returned to the petitioner with the following query :-
“It may be stated how the contempt petition is maintainable, as per Section 20 of the Contempt of Courts Act, as per which time limit is more than one year.”
4. Giving the following reply, the petition has been represented on behalf of the petitioner :-
“It is submitted that contempt petition is maintainable beyond the period of one year under Article 215 of the Constitution, in the interest of justice.
Pallav Sheth (vs) Custodian and Others” judgment passed by
Hon’ble Supreme Court dated 10.08.2001 (Civil) Appeal 2106 &
2107/2001. Complied with and represented.”
5. However, not being satisfied with the aforesaid reply, Registry, still entertaining a doubt, has listed this petition before this Court “for maintainability” today.
6. While the stand of the learned counsel for the petitioner is that the contempt petition is maintainable in view of Article 215 of the Constitution and also the decision of the Apex Court in the case of Pallav Sheth – Vs –Custodian & Ors. (2001 (7) SCC 549), Registry has refrained to number the petition on the question of limitation in view of the orders passed by this Court to the effect that the limitation provided u/s 20 of the Contempt of Courts Act (for short ‘the Act’)
would act as a bar for this Court to entertain a contempt beyond the statutorily prescribed period of one year of the alleged commission of contempt and that a harmonious construction of Section 20 r/w Article 215 of the Constitution would render the contempt as having been hit by limitation.
7. In the light of the countering stand taken by the learned counsel on either side and also keeping in mind the decisions relied on by the learned counsel on either side, this Court, in the interest of justice, would go on to find out whether the limitation of one year prescribed u/s 20 of the Act would, indeed, be a bar for this Court to entertain any contempt petition, which has been filed beyond a period of one year from the date of commission of alleged contempt.
8. This Court is oblivious of the precedents placed before this Court and also the judicial decorum for this Court to follow the same. But, merely because certain decisions have been placed before this Court, as precedents, that cannot be a bar for this Court to analyse the issue before this Court to come to a decision as to the binding nature of the precedents, which alone would necessitate this
Court to follow the same. In the alternative, if there be any distinguishable factors, as could be elicited from the facts to which the law is applied, so as to arrive at a different conclusion, necessarily this Court has to consider the same, while coming to a justifiable decision. In the above backdrop, this Court is proceeding to analyse the issue of maintainability, which has been put in issue before this Court.
9. Before turning to the provisions of law, which have been pressed into service to negate the contempt petition as having been barred by limitation, the decisions, which have been pressed into service requires deliberation at the hands of this Court to find out whether the filing of a contempt petition beyond the prescribed period of limitation of one year of the commission of the alleged contempt would bar the jurisdiction of this Court to entertain a petition alleging commission of contempt.
10. It has come to the notice of this Court that many of the cases are not being numbered by the Registry in the aftermath of the decisions of this Court, which have held that contempt petition is not maintainable beyond the period of one year in view of the limitation prescribed under Section 20 of the Act. The result of the said decisions have resulted in the Registry not entertaining the petitions and with great persuasion and effort, on mention made before the Court, the matters are being listed for deciding on the maintainability and this petition also falls under the said category.
11. This Court does not want to be carried away by any of the decisions passed on the question of limitation by the coordinate Benches of this Court, but would like to analyze the provisions of law in tandem with the decisions of the Apex Court on the issue of limitation to arrive at a holistic finding as to the power of the Court to entertain a petition beyond the period of limitation and also the fetters that would befall on the Registry in the light of Article 215 of the Constitution.
12. It is to be borne in mind that allegation of contempt is nothing but a continuing wrong, which hits at the majesty of the Court. The framers of our Constitution had foreseen such a scenario, where the resultant act of a contemnor in not complying with the directions of the Court, not only causes grave prejudice to the aggrieved person, but also impinges on the authority of the Court, which has resulted in the enactment of Article 215.
13. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1926, the first piece of legislation, was enacted, which defined the limit and powers of certain Courts in punishing for contempt. It is a comprehensive piece of legislation, which clothes the High Court with power to punish for contempt of itself as also for the contempt of the subordinate courts. Further to the repealing of Act, 1926, the present enactment, Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 was enacted. The necessity for the same has been succinctly reflected in the order of the Apex Court in Pallav Sheth case, and the relevant portion is quoted hereunder :-
“11. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1926 was the first piece of legislation which was enacted with a view to define and limit the powers of certain Courts in punishing for Contempt. This Act was enacted with a view to remove doubts about the powers of the High Court to punish for contempt and the doubts whether the High Court cold punish for Contempt of Court subordinate to it were removed by Section 2 of the said Act. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1952 repealed the 1926 Act and made two significant departures from it. Firstly, the expression “High Court” was defined to include the Court of Judicial Commissioner, which had been excluded from the purview of the 1926 Act and, furthermore,
the High Courts so defined were conferred with the jurisdiction to inquire into or try a contempt of itself or of any court subordinate to it, irrespective of whether the contempt was committed within or outside the local limits of jurisdiction and irrespective of whether the person alleged to be guilty of the contempt was within or outside such jurisdiction. Punishment for Contempt of Court was provided by Section 4, being that of simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with a fine which may extend to Rs. 2,000/-, or with both.
12. On 1st April, 1960 a Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha to consolidate and amended the law relating to contempt of courts. A Committee under the Chairmanship of Mr. H.N. Sanyal, Additional Solicitor-General, was set up and it was required inter alia to examine the law relating to contempt of courts and to suggest amendments therein. On the submissions of the Sanyal Committee’s report the Bill was referred to a Joint Committee of the House of Parliament. The said Joint Committee submitted its report to the Rajya Sabha on 23rd February, 1970 suggesting a few changes in the Bill which had been introduced. One of the changes suggested by the Committee was the insertion of Clause 20, which was new and corresponds to the present Section 20 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. The Joint Committee Report in respect of this Clause 20 opined as follows:
“The Committee are of the opinion that contempt procedures by their very nature should be initiated and dealt with as eagerly as possible. It was brought to the notice of the Committee that in some cases contempt proceedings had been initiated long after the alleged contempt had taken place. The Committee therefore consider it necessary and desirable that a period of limitation should be specified in respect of actions for contempt and have accordingly laid down in the new clause a period on one year at the expiration of which no proceedings for contempt should be initiated.”
13. The Sanyal Committee’s recommendation, which had formed the basis of the Contempt of Courts Bill that was referred to the Joint Select Committee, had not contained any provision of limitation in relation to taking any action for the contempt of courts, but after the report of the Joint Select Committee a new Clause was added which resulted in the incorporation of Section 20.
14. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 was enacted, as per the Preamble, with a view “to define and limit the powers of certain Courts in punishing Contempts of Courts and to regulate their procedure in relation thereto”. It provides for action being taken in relation to civil as well as criminal contempt. It is not necessary, for the purpose of this case, to analyse various Sections of the Act in any great detail except to notice that Section 3 to 7 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 provides for what is not to be regarded as contempt. Section 8 specifies that nothing contained in the Act shall be construed as implying that any other valid defence in any proceedings for Contempt of Court ceases to be available merely by reason of the provisions of the 1971 Act. Section 9 makes it clear that the Act will not to be implied as enlarging the scope of contempt. Section 10 contains the power of the High Court to punish contempts of subordinate Courts, while Section 12 specifies the punishment which can be imposed for Contempt of Court and other related matters. Procedure to be followed where contempt is in the face of the Supreme Court or a High Court is provided in Section 14, while cognizance of criminal contempt in other cases is dealt with by Section 115. Section 115 has to be read with Section 17 which provides for procedure after cognizance has been taken under Section 15. A decision of the High Court to punish for contempt is made appealable under Section 19 of the Act.”
14. The pivot of the present issue revolves around Article 215 of the Constitution vis-à-vis Section 20 of the Contempt of Courts Act. The procedural prescription with regard to Article 215 is provided for in the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. For a threadbare analysis of the issue, it is but necessary to advert to Article 215 of the Constitution as also Section 20 of the Act and for better appreciation, the relevant provisions are quoted hereunder:-
“Article 215 of the Constitution :
215. High Courts to be courts of record : Every High Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself.
Section 20 of the Act :
20. Limitation for actions for contempt.- No Court shall initiate any proceedings for contempt, either on its own motion or otherwise, after the expiry of a period of one year from the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed.”
15. The issue with regard to the applicability of limitation provided for u/s
20 of the Act vis-à-vis Article 215 fell for consideration of the Apex Court in Pallav Sheth’s case. The Apex Court, considering the proposition postulated by the various Courts on the issue of limitation provided for u/s 20 of the Act and in particular the decision of the coordinate Benches of the Apex Court, on considering the power of the High Court and the Supreme Court in the matter of contempt, held as under :-
“30. There can be no doubt that both this Court and High Courts are Courts of Records and the Constitution has given them the powers to punish for contempt. The decisions of this Court clearly show that this power cannot be abrogated or stultified. But if the power under Article 129 and Article 215 is absolute can there be any legislation indicating the manner and to the extent that the power can be exercised? If there is any provision of the law which stultifies or abrogates the power under Article 129 and/or Article 215 there can be little doubt that such law should not be regarded as having been validly enacted. It, however, appears to us that providing for the quantum of punishment as what may or may not be regarded as acts of contempt or even providing for a period of limitation for initiating proceedings for contempt cannot be taken to be a provision which abrogates or stultifies the contempt jurisdiction under Article 129 or Article 215 of the Constitution.
31. This Court has always frowned upon the grant or existence of absolute or unbridled power. Just as power or jurisdiction under Article 226 has to be exercised in accordance with law, if any, enacted by the legislature it would stand to reason that the power under Article 129 and/or Article 215 should be exercised in consonance with the provisions of a validly enacted law. In case of apparent or likelihood of conflict the provisions should be construed harmoniously.
32. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 inter alia provides for what is not to be regarded as contempt; it specifies in Section 12 the maximum punishment which can be imposed; procedure to be followed where contempt is in the face of the Supreme Court or in the High Court or cognizance of criminal contempt in other cases is provided by Sections 14 and 15; the procedure to be followed after taking cognizance is provided by Section 17; Section 18
provides that in every case of criminal contempt under Section 15 the same shall be heard and determined by a Bench of not less than two Judges; Section 19 gives the right of appeal from any order or decision of High Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction to punish for contempt. There is no challenge to the validity of any of the provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act as being violative or in conflict with any provisions of the Constitution. Barring observations of this Court in the Supreme Court Bar Association’s case (supra), where it did not express any opinion on the question whether maximum punishment fixed by the 1971 Act was binding on the Court, no doubt has been expressed about the validity of any provision of the 1971 Act. In exercise of its constitutional power this Court has, on the other hand, applied the provisions of the Act while exercising jurisdiction under Article 129 or 125 of the Constitution. In Sukhdev Singh Sodhi’s case (supra) it recognised that the 1926 Act placed a limitation on the amount of punishment which could be imposed. Baradakanta Mishra’s case was decided on the interpretation of Section 19 of the 1971 Act, namely, there was no right of appeal if the Court did not take action or initiate contempt proceedings. In the case of Firm Ganpat Ram Rajkumar’s case (supra) the Court did not hold that Section 20 of the 1971 Act was inapplicable. It came to the conclusion that the application for initiating contempt proceedings (was within time and limitation had to be calculated) as for the purpose of limitation date of filing was relevant and furthermore that was a case of continuing wrong. In Kartick Chandra Das case (supra) the provisions of the Limitation Act were held to be applicable in dealing with application under Section 5 in connection with an appeal filed under Section 19 of the Limitation Act. A three-Judge Bench in Dr. L.P. Misra’s case (supra) observed that the procedure provided by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 had to be followed even in exercise of the jurisdiction under Article 215 of the Constitution. It would, therefore, follow that if Section 20 is so interpreted that it does not stultify the powers under Article 129 or Article 215 then, like other provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act relating to the extent of punishment which can be imposed, a reasonable period of limitation can also be provided.”
16. In the above backdrop, the issue which fell for consideration before the Apex Court was to the meaning to be given to the expression “no court shall initiate any proceedings for contempt…”occurring in Section 20 of the Act. In the said backdrop, while discussing the issue, the Apex Court went on to consider the various decisions on the aforesaid issue and opined that the determining factor is terminus ad quem, viz., the starting point of a proceeding in the matter of contempt, and in that regard, held thus :-
“33. The question which squarely arises is as to what is the meaning to be given to the expression “no court shall initiate any proceedings for contempt..” occurring in Section 20 of the 1971 Act. Section 20 deals not only with criminal contempt but also with civil contempt. It applies not only to the contempt committed in the face of the High Court or the Supreme Court but would also be applicable in the case of contempt of the subordinate court. The procedure which is to be followed in each of these cases is different.
34. As we have already noted, in the Bill which was presented to the Parliament after taking into consideration the recommendations of the Sanyal Committee there was no provision similar to Section 20 of the 1971 Act. It is only the Joint Parliamentary Committee which recommended the insertion of Clause 20 so as to provide for a period of limitation. There can be little doubt that Section 20, as framed, is not happily worded. The heading of the section, however, indicates what it was to provide for “Limitation for actions for contempt”. The wording of the section are negative but it is clear that terminus ad quem is the initiation of proceedings for contempt. The question that arise as to how or when are the proceedings for contempt initiated.
35. In Webster’s Third New International Dictionary the word “initiate” has inter alia been defined thus:
“to begin or set going: make a beginning of: perform or facilitate the first actions, steps, or stages of”
36. In Shorter Oxford English Dictionary the word “initiate” is defined as:
“to begin, commence, enter upon, to introduce, set going, originates”
37. Under Section 23 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 power has been given to this Court and to the High Courts to make rules not inconsistent with the provisions of the Act providing for any matter relating to its procedure. Our attention has been drawn to Rules framed under Section 23 by this Court as well as by the High Courts in India. All these Rules inter alia require, other than suo motu action is taken, petition or application being filed in Court it is then taken up for consideration. For example, relevant part of Rule 2 of the Calcutta High Court Contempt of Courts Rules, 1975 reads as follows:
“Rule 2.(1) Proceedings in connection with a Civil
Contempt may be initiated-
(a) by a petition presented by a party or parties aggrieved; or
(b) by the High Court on its own motion; or
(c) on a reference made to the High Court by the subordinate courts as in the case of “Criminal Contempt”.
(2) Proceedings in connection with a criminal contempt may be initiated-
(a) on a motion of the High Court in respect of a contempt committed upon its own view under section 14 of the Act; or
(b) on its own motion by the High Court under section
15(1) of the Act; or
(c) on a motion founded on a petition presented by the
Advocate-General under section 15(1)(a) of the Act; or
(d) on a motion founded on a petition presented by any other person with the consent in writing of the Advocate-
General under section 15(1)(b) of the Act; or
(e) on a reference made to the High Court by the subordinate courts under section 15(2) of the Act, containing the following particulars:
(a) a brief statement of the case;
(b) the particulars of the contumacious acts;
(c) name, address and other particulars of the respondents along with the copies of the papers relating to contumacious acts.”
17. The Apex Court, after determining the meaning of starting point went on hold that the initiation of proceeding would be the starting point and the point which could be determined as the starting point of a proceeding was culled out on the basis of the Contempt of Courts Rules framed by the different High Court and in the said context, held thus :-
“38. The Rules so framed by all the Courts in India do show that proceedings are initiated inter alia with the filing of an application or a petition in that behalf. If, however, proceedings are not initiated by filing of an application within a period of one year from the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed then the Court shall not have jurisdiction to punish for contempt. If, on the other hand, proceedings are properly initiated by the filing of an application, in the case of civil contempt like the present before the Court within the period of limitation then the provisions of Section 20 will not stand in the way of the Court exercising its jurisdiction.
* * * * * * *
40. In other words, the beginning of the action prescribed for taking cognizance of criminal contempt under Section 15 would be initiating the proceedings for contempt and the subsequent action taken thereon of refusal or issuance of a notice or punishment thereafter are only steps following or succeeding to such initiation. Similarly, in the case of a civil contempt filing of an application drawing the attention of the Court is necessary for further steps to be taken under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.”
18. The Apex Court, after determining the starting point when a proceeding is said to have commenced, that is to say the filing of a petition alleging commission of contempt by the aggrieved person, went on to hold that mere filing would not suffice for the Court to act upon the said petition, but here Section 20 of the Act comes into play, which could be determined by the diligent act of the aggrieved party in bringing the commission of contempt to the notice of the Court. The relevant observations of the Apex Court are extracted hereunder :-
“41. One of the principles underlying the law of limitation is that a litigant must act diligently and not sleep over its rights. In this background such an interpretation should be placed on Section 20 of the Act which does not lead to an anomalous result causing hardship to the party who may have acted with utmost diligence and because of the inaction on the part of the Court a contemner cannot be made to suffer. Interpreting the section in the manner canvassed by Mr. Venugopal would mean that the Court would be rendered powerless to punish even though it may be fully convinced of the blatant nature of a contempt having been committed and the same having been brought to the notice of the Court soon after the committal of the contempt and within the period of one year of the same. Section 20, therefore, has to be construed in a manner which would avoid such an anomaly and hardship both as regards the litigant as also by placing a pointless fetter on the part of the Court to punish for its contempt. An interpretation of Section 20, like the one canvassed by the Appellant, which would render the constitutional power of the Courts nugatory in taking action for contempt even in case of gross contempt, successfully hidden for a period of one year by practising fraud by the contemner would render Section 20 as liable to be regarded as being in conflict with Article 129 and/or Article 215. Such a rigid interpretation must therefore be avoided.
42. The decision in Om Prakash Jaiswal’s case (supra), to the effect that initiation of proceedings under Section 20 can only be said to have occurred when the Court formed the prima facie opinion that contempt has been committed and issued notice to the contemner to show-cause why it should not be punished, is taking too narrow a view of Section 20 which does not seem to be warranted and is not only going to cause hardship but would perpetrate injustice. A provision like Section 20 has to be interpreted having regard to the realities of the situation. For instance, in a case where a contempt of a subordinate court is committed a report is prepared whether on an application to Court or otherwise, and reference made by the subordinate court to the High Court. It is only thereafter that a High Court can take further action under Section 15. In the process, more often than not, a period of one year elapses. If the interpretation of Section 20 put in Om Prakash Jaiswal’s case (supra) is correct, it would mean that notwithstanding both the subordinate court and the High Court being prima facie satisfied that contempt has been committed the High Court would become powerless to take any action. On the other hand, if the filing of an application before the subordinate court or the High Court making of a reference by a subordinate court on its own motion or the filing an application before an Advocate-General for permission to initiate contempt proceedings is regarded as initiation by the Court for the purposes of Section 20, then such an interpretation would not impinge on or stultify the power of the High Court to punish for contempt which power, dehors the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 is enshrined in Article 215 of the Constitution. Such an interpretation of Section 20 would harmonise that section with the powers of the Courts to punish for contempt which is recognised by the Constitution.” (Emphasis Supplied)
19. In the above context, the Apex Court, turning its view to the decision of a Full Bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, gave its seal of approval to the said decision by holding that the filing of a petition alleging commission of contempt is the starting point of the proceeding and in the said context, held thus
“43. A question arose before a Full Bench of the Punjab & Haryana High Court in the case of Manjit Singh and Others vs.
Darshan Singh and Others with regard to the application of Section 20 to the proceedings of criminal contempt. After coming to the conclusion that on the language of Section 20 the date when time begins to run is fixed from the point on which the criminal contempt is alleged to have been committed the Court had to decide the terminating point or the terminus ad quem for the limitation under Section 20 of the Act. Four possibilities which fell for consideration in this regard were: (i) the date on which the actual notice of contempt is issued by the Court; (ii) the date on which the Advocate General moves the motion under Section 15(1)(a); (iii) the date on which a subordinate Court makes a reference of the criminal contempt under Section 15(2) of the Act and, (iv) the date on which any other person prefers an application to the Advocate-General for his consent under Section 15(1)(b) of the Act. On behalf of the State the contention raised before the Full Bench was that the sole terminus ad quem was the date of the actual issuance of the notice of criminal contempt by the Court and reliance in this behalf was inter alia placed on the above mentioned decision of this Court in Baradakanta Mishra’s case. The Full Bench, in our opinion, rightly came to the conclusion that the sole question which arose for consideration in Baradakanta Mishra’s case related to the interpretation of Section 19 of the Act and no question of interpreting or applying Section 20 was at all in issue. Following the dictum of Lord Halsbury in Quinn vs. Leathem that a case is only an authority for what it actually decides and cannot be quoted for a proposition that may even seem to follow logically therefrom, the Full Bench correctly observed that Baradakanta Mishra’s case was no warrant for the proposition that the issuance of a notice of criminal contempt by the High Court is the sole terminus ad quem for determining limitation under Section 20 of the Act. The Court then proceeded to observe in paras 13 and 19 as follows:
“13. Once that is so, one must now proceed to analyse and construe S. 20 independently. A plain reading thereof would indicate that the legislature drew a clear line of distinction betwixt proceedings for contempt initiated by the Court on its own motion, and those not so done. Suo motu action by the High Court is thus clearly itself. Consequently the statute in express terms refers to these two classes separately, namely, any proceedings for contempt on Court’s own motion, and proceedings for contempt initiated “otherwise”. The use of the word ‘otherwise’ is significant and indeed provides the clue to be the true interpretation of Sec. 20. Therefore, initiation of contempt proceedings otherwise than on Court’s own motion would include within its sweep a motion by the Advocate General, a reference by a subordinate Court to the High Court to take action for contempt and an application before the Advocate General seeking his consent by any other person under S. 15 and lastly in case of civil contempt the motion by a private litigant directly in the Court.
“19. To finally conclude it must be held that the terminus a quo for limitation begins under Section 20 of the Act on the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed. The terminus ad quem in case of criminal contempt would necessarily vary and be related to the modes of taking cognisance thereof provided for in S. 15. In cases where it is initiated on the Court’s own motion it would necessarily be from the issuance of the notice for contempt by the Court. In case of a motion by the Advocate General under S. 15(1)(a), the proceedings would initiate from the date of the filing of such a motion in the High Court. Where any other person moves the Advocate General for his consent in writing as prescribed in S. 15(1)(b), the initiation of proceedings would be with effect from the date of such application. Lastly, in cases of criminal contempt of a subordinate Court on a reference made by it the proceedings must be deemed to be initiated from the date when such reference is made.”
44. Action for contempt is divisible into two categories, namely, that initiated suo motu by the Court and that instituted otherwise than on the Court’s own motion. The mode of initiation in each case would necessarily be different. While in the case of suo motu proceedings, it is the Court itself which must initiate by issuing a notice. In other cases initiation can only be by a party filing an application. In our opinion, therefore, the proper construction to be placed on Section 20 must be that action must be initiated, either by filing of an application or by the Court issuing notice suo motu, within a period of one year from the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed.” (Emphasis Supplied)
20. In the above circumstances, even from a bare perusal of Article 215 it is manifestly clear that the High Court, being a Court of record, is vested with inherent power, including the power to punish for contempt of itself. This means
that for any disobedience or non-compliance of the directions of the High Court is vested with powers to initiate action for contempt.
21. Article 215 of the Constitution broadly speaks about the power of the Court to punish for contempt and the Contempt of Courts Act, though enacted as an Act, but in reality it specifies the procedural aspects including defining what contempt is and what are the acts that would fall within contempt, which have been broadly spoken to by the Apex Court in para-32 of the decision in Pallav Sheth case.
22. The decision in Pallav Sheth case has spelt the manner in which Section
20 has to be looked into. A careful perusal of the decision of the Apex Court in Pallav Sheth’s case more particularly para-20 reveal that the Apex Court had taken into consideration the decision in Firm Ganpat Ram Rajkumar – Vs – Kaul Ram (1989 Supp (2) SCC 418) wherein the Apex Court had gone on to hold that while limitation as a prescription u/s 20 has to be looked into, equally, the noncompliance of the directions is a continuing wrong and, therefore, there was no scope for application of Section 20 of the Act and further held that the date of filing of the application for initiating contempt proceedings as the relevant date from the point of view of limitation.
23. In the said decision, the Apex Court had unequivocally rejected
the contention that Section 20 was mandatory as it imposes a prohibition on the Court in taking action once a period of one year had elapsed. Rejecting the contentions, the Apex Court held that if there is any provision of law, which stultifies or abrogates the power under Article 129 and/or Article 215, there can be little doubt that such law would not be regarded as having been validly enacted.
24. A careful perusal of the ratio laid down in Pallav Sheth case, the Apex Court, while determining the starting point of a proceeding as the act of the aggrieved party in filing the petition before the Court alleging commission of contempt, however, further observed that merely because the petition is filed beyond the period of limitation, by itself, would not be taken to mean that the said petition is barred by limitation, but the limitation also to be reckoned as a determining factor while adjudicating the contempt, as the basis of the allegation of the aggrieved party is the commission of contempt, which is the noncompliance of the directions of this court. Therefore, while adjudicating the initial step of limitation, the diligent act of the party in filing the petition alleging commission of contempt deserves to be looked into keeping in mind the act of the contemnor. Mere delay in filing a petition, which would be termed to be barred u/s 20 of the Act, alone cannot be the basis to reject the case of the aggrieved party, but the circumstances surrounding it should also be looked at, which would be the determinative factor for the Court to proceed further, by invoking its inherent power under Article 215 of the Constitution, as the delay, even if any, cannot put any fetters upon the inherent powers of the Court, which is derived from Article 215, to adjudicate the issue and punish a contemnor for contempt.
25. Further, the Apex Court, while going on to hold that terminus ad quem is the initiation of proceedings for contempt by filing of a petition by the aggrieved party, further held that the Contempt of Court Rules framed would govern the procedure relating to the proceedings for contempt. However, it is to be pointed out that while Rules have been framed by this Court to regulate the proceedings for contempt of Subordinate Courts and of the High Court, however, the stage where the proceedings could be held to have been initiated has not been spelt out and the whole of the Rules is silent on this aspect.
26. In the above backdrop, a look at the decision further in Pallav Sheth case disclose that a finding has been rendered in para-38 of the said decision to the effect that rules have been framed by all the Courts in India which show that proceedings are initiated inter alia with the filing of an application or a petition in that behalf. It has been further held that if proceedings are not initiated by filing of an application within a period of one year from the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed, then the Court shall not have jurisdiction to punish for contempt. However, in the absence of any particular provision, which defines “proceeding”, necessarily the decision of the Apex Court in Pallav Sheth case would stand attracted to the case on hand.
27. In this context, the Apex Court has held that the diligent act of a litigant by not sleeping over his rights is of utmost importance and the inaction of the
Court cannot be a ground for the litigant to suffer and, therefore, necessarily held that the filing of the petition/application by the private person would be the start of the proceeding. The Apex Court had further held that pointless fetters cannot be placed on the Court to punish a contemnor for contempt as any other interpretation of Section would render the constitutional power of the Courts nugatory in taking action for contempt even in cases of gross contempt, which has been successfully hidden by practicising fraud by the contemnor and in such a scenario, Section 20 is liable to be regarded as being in conflict with Article 129 and/or Article 215.
28. However, time and again, this Court has come across very many matters, being returned by the Registry citing the limitation prescribed u/s 20 of the Act. True it is that there may have been overshooting of limitation but that alone cannot be the ground to reject the petition, for any allegation of contempt, if made out, definitely hits at the majesty of the Court. In this regard, the Apex
Court in Pallav Sheth’s case drawing reference to the decision in Firm Ganpat Ram Rajkumar case wherein it was held that a continuing wrong is a matter of concern and deliberation by the Court.
29. Limitation prescribed u/s 20, no doubt, is a statutory prescription, which requires adherence, but it cannot go against the constitutional mandate contained in Article 215. When Article 215 clearly prescribes that contempt is a punishable, merely because limitation is overshot alone cannot be the ground for rejecting the petition.
30. Further, limitation prescribed u/s 20 stipulates that after the expiry of a period of one year from the date on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed, no contempt proceeding shall be initiated by the Court. However, what is relevant to be noted here is the fact about the date on which the one year period expires. It is clearly within the domain of the Court to reckon the date of the alleged commission of contempt with reference to the limitation prescribed u/s 20 of the Act and the Registry cannot, as a matter of administrative precaution and procedure, negate the claim of a litigant that one year period has expired. The prescription of one year period of limitation u/s 20 would subserve no cause if the Court comes to the conclusion that the continuing wrong on the part of the contemnor in not adhereing to the directions of this
Court is a clear violation of the mandate, which necessitates invocation of the inherent power under Article 215. Therefore, necessarily, all the matters, in which contempt is alleged to have been committed, irrespective of the time at which it is filed, should be numbered and listed before this Court and it is for the Court to decide on the limitation in the light of the continuing wrong and other allied/reasonable circumstances and whether Section 20 should be enforced or a more stringent step is required for this Court to side-step Section 20 and invoke its inherent power under Article 215 to deal with the issue.
31. Only in the above scenario, the Rules that have been framed by this Court to regulate the contempt proceedings has directed the petition to be presented before the First Assistant Registrar, who is bound to receive the same and number it for being placed before the Court.
32. However, the Registry, on the basis of certain orders passed by the coordinate Benches, which were on the basis of the facts of the said cases, of its own accord, without appreciating the full import of the orders of this Court in its entirety, is trying to divest the power of this Court by trying to take up the task of deciding the issue even at the time of presentation of the petition by adorning the cloak of the court, which is per se impermissible and cannot be allowed to continue.
33. Further, in Pallav Sheth’s case the Apex Court has clearly held that while limitation is a determinative factor in the wake of the Limitation Act to test the due diligence of the aggrieved party, who alleges contempt, but has not closed the doors of the Court, as a court or record, to take up the contempt, which would be evident from the said order, wherein the Apex Court has even gone on to hold that a contemnor could very well have, under false pretence played fraud and prevented the aggrieved party from filing the contempt petition within the prescribed period of limitation, which act cannot denude the Court from taking up the case of contempt, as shirking from the said responsibility by taking umbrage under the limitation provided u/s 20 would be nothing but putting the majesty of the Court at stake, which was not the intent of Article 215 of the Constitution.
34. When a continuing wrong is perpetuated by the contemnor, which isnot only in detriment to the aggrieved person, but is a fraud played on the Court and is a gross disobedience and wilful non-compliance of the orders of this Court, necessarily the Damocles sword that is made to hang on the head of the contemnor by means of Article 215 of the Constitution cannot be taken away merely under the guise of limitation u/s 20, as otherwise the constitutional mandate would be pushed to the backseat. It is to be pointed out that Section 20 of the Act cannot go along with Article 215 but has to go behind Article 215 and has to be subservient to Article 215.
35. Further, it is to be pointed out that Section 20 of the Act should be read harmoniously by the Court; in that Section 20 would be deemed to fall beyond Article 215 of the Constitution and by no stretch could it be stretched to mean that Section 20 of the Act would go along with Article 215 as in that scenario, there would be a conflict between Article 215 and Section 20 and as held by the Apex Court in a catena of decisions, the provisions of the Constitution would definitely have an overriding effect over any other law enacted by the
36. Whether the aggrieved party has acted diligently can only be established before the Court and merely on the ground of limitation, the aggrieved party cannot be thrown out, which would be in stark violation of principles of natural justice and, therefore, necessarily the Registry is bound to place the papers before the Court for its decision and it would be an imprudent act to shut the doors on the aggrieved party citing Section 20.
37. In the above stated circumstances, the Court has to necessarily adjudicate all the aforesaid aspects like the diligence of the aggrieved person, the conduct of the contemnor and the act of contempt, the gravity of the allegation alleged and the surrounding circumstances that has led to the perpetuation of contempt all needs to be taken into account before deciding whether the Court should proceed further against the contemnor and the mere delay on the part of the aggrieved party cannot alone form the basis for rejecting the claim of the aggrieved party as it is not only the aggrieved party, who has been deprived of the benefit of the order, but the order of the Court had been made a laughable commodity at the hands of the contemnor and if this Court does not wield its judicial sword to strike at such erring individuals, who wantonly take the Court for
granted, not only the majesty of this Court would be lost, but the general public would lose faith in the justice delivery system.
38. Further, one other aspect which also stares writ large on the face of this Court is the fact that Section 20 of the Act only mandates the Court not to initiate any proceedings after the expiry of a period of one year from the date on which contempt is alleged to have been committed and the said provision of law, in no way, bars the filing of a contempt petition for adjudication. The tenor and wordings of the said provision of law unambiguously portrays the above and that being the case, the act of the Registry in not numbering the petition citing the aspect of limitation u/s 20 is wholly erroneous and impermissible.
39. In this regard, useful reference can be had to the decision of the Division Bench of this Court in P.Ramamoorthy – Vs – Jeevarathinam (Cont. Ptn. No.495/2021 – Dated 06.04.2022), wherein the Division Bench had observed the following :-
“9. However, we cannot agree with the contention of the respondent that the contempt is belated. The powers of this Court under Article 215 of the Constitution of India cannot be
curtailed by Section 20 of the Contempt of Courts Act. The Registry cannot refuse to number the contempt quoting Section 20 and it is for the Bench to decide whether contempt is made out or not.”
40. There are very many instances of the Government machinery not complying with the directions of the Court, but merely cajoling the litigants that action is being taken to comply with the said order, thereby, the period of limitation prescribed u/s 20 of the Act gets over literally negating the claim of the litigant and also defeating the orders of the Court.
41. Registry, on the basis of certain orders passed, routinely rejects the petitions filed by the aggrieved persons, inspite of allegations of contempt of orders. While computation of limitation could be done by the Registry at the time of entertaining the petition, but the delay should be looked at keeping in mind the surrounding circumstances alleged and also the continuing wrong and in such a scenario, it would be only within the domain of this Court to decide and the severity of the continuing wrong, which alone would be a determinant factor in this Court exercising its inherent jurisdiction under Article 215 of the
Constitution. If the Registry precludes the aggrieved persons from filing the petitions citing limitation, under the garb of Section 20, the constitutional power of this Court provided under Article 215 would be rendered nugatory due to the fraud played on the litigants by the contemnors.
42. The Apex Court had deliberated on the said issue on the touchstone of Section 20 of the Act by holding that the starting point of the proceeding is the filing of a petition/application, either on own motion by the Court or otherwise, which is based on the Rules framed by the respective High Courts. However, as pointed out above, the Rules with regard to regulating the proceedings for contempt of Subordinate Courts and of the High Court framed is silent on this aspect. Such being the case, while adopting the ratio laid down in Pallav Sheth case as squarely applicable to the case on hand, but definitely a rider needs to be added, in that the Registry cannot stop the filing of the petition for alleged contempt on the point of limitation, but on the basis of the Rules, has to necessarily number the case and place it before the Court for adjudication.
43. Proceedings initiated by the petitioner, though belated, but with due diligence, which has not received the proper treatment at the hands of the Court, incurring the wrath of Section 20 would be nothing but a clear infraction of justice and in utter defiance of the directions of the Apex Court in Pallav Sheth case as it is the duty of the Court to find out the entire factual matrix of the case before the issue of limitation is injected into the case and all the surrounding circumstance leading to the filing of the petition alleging commission of contempt ought to be looked into by the Court and the Registry cannot, as a matter of course, reject the numbering of the petition citing limitation.
44. Coming to the case on hand, a perusal of the typed set of records reveal that order has been passed in the contempt petition on 27.4.2018. Since the order has not been complied with, contempt notice had been issued on 2.4.2019 and, thereafter, the petition has been filed on 21.2.2020. Definitely there is an element of delay, but it cannot be said that the writ petitioner has not acted with due diligence. The writ petitioner has issued the contempt notice and proof of delivery has also been filed and in the absence of response from the contemnor, the present contempt petition has been presented.
45. The Registry, upon receipt of the contempt petition, had raised the issue of maintainability pointing out the aspect of limitation prescribed u/s 20 of the Act, which was addressed by the petitioner on 5.3.2020. However, the contempt petition could see the light of the day only on 17.9.2021, when it was placed before the Court due to the pandemic situation that was prevailing between March, 2020 and the date on which the petition was placed before the Court. The said facts are not in dispute.
46. When the contempt petition was taken up on 17.9.2021, though it is said to have been listed for maintainability, however, the records does not reveal so, except for the SR number of the contempt petition. Further, the learned Government Advocate, who appeared before the Court took notice and sought for time to get instructions. Thereafter, on very many occasions, the petition has been listed where time has been taken up by the contemnor. However, it is to be pointed out that the issue of limitation has not been raised by the contemnor.
47. Though the issue of limitation need not be raised by the contemnor and this Court, on its own motion could go into the same, as has been held in Pallav Sheth case, however, considering the fact that the order which is said to have been not complied with till date, the continuing wrong definitely warrants adjudication of the present petition before foreclosing the case of the writ petition on the point of limitation. Further, it is also to be pointed out that once notice has been accepted on behalf of the respondent/contemnor by the Government Advocate, the status of the compliance of the order of this Court has to be necessarily informed to this Court and continuing non-compliance of the same definitely strikes at the substratum, thereby putting in peril the majesty of the Court.
48. Further, it is to be pointed out that when notice has been accepted on behalf of the respondent/contemnor, in the absence of any office note with regard to maintainability which was placed anterior in point of time, this Court is at a loss to understand as to what prompted the Registry to once again rake up the issue of maintainability on the question of limitation by placing a further note. However, this Court is not entering any further into the said arena. Suffice to state that for the reasons aforesaid, necessarily, the present contempt petition is maintainable and the issue of limitation, which has been put in issue by the Registry, on the facts and circumstances pointed out above, pales into insignificance and does not hold water.
49. For the aforesaid reasons, while holding that the contempt petition is maintainable, Registry is directed to number the contempt petition and list the same for hearing on 27.02.2023.
50. In view of the fact that the Registry, more often than not, refrains from numbering the contempt petition on the issue of limitation u/s 20 of the Act, which, as held above, is impermissible, Registry is directed to mark a copy of this order to the Registrar General who is directed to place this order before the Hon’ble The Acting Chief Justice and obtain necessary permission for circulating the aforesaid order amongst the staff members so that the contempt petitions are numbered and placed before the Court for hearing even if there arises any question of limitation so that the Court could deal with the same at the time of hearing.
Index : Yes / No
Internet : Yes / No
Office to Note: Order Copy on 24.02.2023 B/o.
The Registrar General High Court Madras.
CONT. PTN. (MD) SR NO.11505 OF 2020
CONT. PTN. (MD) NO.SR11505 OF 2020 M.DHANDAPANI, J.
Upon being numbered, the contempt petition has been listed before this
Court today for hearing.
2. A perusal of the order dated 16.2.2023, it is seen that in para-8 of the said order, which was passed when the matter was taken up for maintainability, there is a typographical error appearing in the first line of para-8 of the said order dated 16.2.2023, wherein, in the first line starting with “This Court is oblivious……”, the word “not” has been inadvertently omitted to be typed before the word “oblivious”, which, in the absence of the said word, changes the complexion of the whole paragraph.
3. In such circumstances, para-8 of the order dated 16.2.2023 shall stand corrected as under :-
“This Court is not oblivious of the precedents placed before this Court and also the judicial decorum for this Court to follow the same. But, merely because certain decisions have been placed before this Court, as precedents, that
cannot be a bar for this Court to analyse the issue before this Court to come to a decision as to the binding nature of the precedents, which alone would necessitate this Court to follow the same. In the alternative, if there be any distinguishable factors, as could be elicited from the facts to which the law is applied, so as to arrive at a different conclusion, necessarily this Court has to consider the same, while coming to a justifiable decision. In the above backdrop, this Court is proceeding to analyse the issue of maintainability, which has been put in issue before this Court.”
4. Registry is directed to carry out the aforesaid correction in para-8 of the aforesaid order dated 16.2.2023 and issue fresh order copy to all the concerned parties.
Note to Office :
(i)Issue fresh order copy to all the parties including the Registrar General, High Court, Madras.
(ii) Order Copy on 24.02.2023
CONT. PTN. (MD) NO.SR11505 OF 2020