The Supreme Court recently comprising of a bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MM Sundresh observed that vicarious liability as a principle cannot be applied to a case of contempt. (Dr. U.N. Bora, Ex. Chief Executive Officer vs Assam Roller Flour Mills Association)
Merely because a subordinate official acted in disregard of an order passed by the Court, a liability cannot be fastened on a higher official in the absence of knowledge, the bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice MM Sundresh observed.
Facts of the Case
The present appeal has been filed against the order of the Division Bench of the High Court finding the appellants guilty of willful disobedience of the order passed in Writ Petition in respect to the levy made while upholding Section 21 of the Assam Agricultural Produce Market Act, 1972. In appeal, they contended that there was absolutely no material to implicate the appellants with the alleged action of their subordinates.
Learned counsel appearing for the appellants submitted that the second appellant was transferred on 23.07.2008 and the appellant no. 1 was in-charge only till 21.01.2009. The first appellant died on 27.02.2017. There is no willful and deliberate violation of the order involved. The High Court has erred in going into the facts in appreciating evidence. It exceeded its jurisdiction which it declined to exercise even while invoking Article 226 of the Constitution of India. It could have relegated the members of the respondent no.1 to go before the committee constituted. There is absolutely no material to implicate the appellants with the alleged action of their subordinates. The concept of vicarious liability is alien to a contempt jurisdiction.
Learned counsel appearing for the respondents submitted that the press release followed by the failure on the part of officials working under the appellants would clearly show the intention to circumvent the orders passed by the Court. Materials were accordingly produced. It is a case of deliberate attempt to overcome the judgment of the Court, notwithstanding the adequate knowledge. As the High Court has considered the relevant materials, there is no need to interfere with the reasoned order passed.
The bench, at the very outset, observed, "We are dealing with a civil contempt. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 explains a civil contempt to mean a willful disobedience of a decision of the Court. Therefore, what is relevant is the "willful" disobedience. Knowledge acquires substantial importance qua a contempt order. Merely because a subordinate official acted in disregard of an order passed by the Court, liability cannot be fastened on a higher official in the absence of knowledge. When two views are possible, the element of willfulness vanishes as it involves a mental element. It is a deliberate, conscious, and intentional act. What is required is proof beyond reasonable doubt since the proceedings are quasi-criminal in nature. Similarly, when a distinct mechanism is provided and that too, in the same judgment alleged to have been violated, a party has to exhaust the same before approaching the court in the exercise of its jurisdiction under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. It is well open to the said party to contend that the benefit of the order passed has not been actually given, through separate proceedings while seeking appropriate relief but certainly not by way of a contempt proceeding."
The bench said that while dealing with a contempt petition, the Court is not expected to conduct a roving inquiry and go beyond the very judgment which was allegedly violated. The bench then referred to observations made in Hukum Chand Deswal v. Satish Raj Deswal.
The court observed that there is no material to either establish their knowledge on the action of their subordinates, or that they acted in collusion with each other.
The bench setting aside the High Courts order observed, "10....Vicarious liability as a principle cannot be applied to a case of contempt. The question as to whether the drivers of two members of respondent no.1 showed the order passed by the court and the documents produced are true and genuine being in the realm of adjudication, ought not to have been taken up by the High Court while exercising contempt jurisdiction."