Don’t misuse the Power of Contempt Proceedings, SC tells High Courts

New Delhi: Supreme Court  of India Tuesday said the power to punish for contempt, vested in it and the high courts both under the constitution as well as a law, is a “special and rare power” which should be exercised with “greatest of care and caution”.

“It (contempt of court) is a drastic power which, if misdirected, could even curb the liberty of the individual charged with commission of contempt,” said a bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh in their judgment on Tuesday.

The apex court’s observation came as it set aside the contempt proceedings initiated by the the Madras High Court Jan 19, 2012 against ONGC chairman and managing director Sudhir Vasudeva for not complying with its order for creating supernumerary posts of a marine assistant radio operator.

The high court had ordered the creation of the posts while it was hearing a contempt plea in respect of its earlier order of Aug 2, 2006.

“The very nature of the power casts a sacred duty in the courts to exercise the same with the greatest of care and caution,” said Justice Gogoi speaking for the bench.

“This is also necessary as, more often than not, adjudication of a contempt plea involves a process of self-determination of the sweep, meaning and effect of the order in respect of which disobedience is alleged.”

Thus, the apex court held: “Courts must not, therefore, travel beyond the four corners of the order which is alleged to have been flouted or enter into questions that have not been dealt with or decided in the judgment or the order violation of which is alleged.”

It said that “only such directions which are explicit in a judgment or order or are plainly self-evident ought to be taken into account for the purpose of consideration as to whether there has been any disobedience or willful violation of the same”.

Decided issues could not be reopened nor the plea of equities can be considered, the judgment said.

“Courts must also ensure that while considering a contempt plea the power available to the court in other corrective jurisdictions like review or appeal is not trenched upon,” the court said.