India: Third Party Liability In Contempt Proceedings

Last Updated: 25 September 2019
Article by Sanjeev Kumar and Abhishek Goyal

Judiciary acts as a guardian of rule of law, which is the foundation of a democratic society. It acts not only as the third pillar, but the central pillar of a democratic State[1]. Therefore, for a democracy to work efficiently, it is imperative that the judiciary is not only free from external influences, rather, has a power to maintain its majesty and authority. In order to ensure that the dignity and authority of the judiciary is respected and protected, Courts have been empowered with the "extraordinary power[2]" of punishment for their contempt. Law of contempt serves public interest and builds confidence in the judicial process.

The Report of the Committee on Contempt of Courts, as early as 1963, acknowledged the difficulty and vagueness inherent in defining the term "contempt", which may manifest in various form. It was therefore concluded, "Contempt cannot be defined except by enumerating the heads under which it may be classified-heads which can never be exhaustive...An inclusive definition would be wholly unsatisfactory" The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 provides two broad heads under which "contempt" may be categorized: civil contempt[3] and criminal contempt[4]. Broadly, civil contempt involves private injury, arising from willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a Court or willful breach of an undertaking given to a Court. In distinction, criminal contempt involves defiance of the Court, revealed in the conduct which amounts to obstruction or interference with the administration of justice[5].

In an inter-party proceeding, orders of the Court bind only the parties to such proceedings. Therefore, violation of such orders by any of the parties to the proceedings may amount to contempt of Court, punishable in terms of the provisions[6] of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. However, there may be instances where the violation/ disregard of Court's order results not only from the conduct of the parties to the proceedings, rather, from the conduct of persons totally unrelated thereto ("third person"). Under such circumstances, providing immunity to third person on pure technical grounds that the orders of Court bind only parties to the proceedings, would amount to permitting indirect assault on the majesty and supremacy of judiciary, which the Courts are bound to protect.

Law on third party liability in contempt proceedings in India is primarily an adaptation of the principles of English Law. One of the earliest English cases discussing the liability of third party in contempt proceedings is that of Seaward v. Paterson, (1897) 1 Ch. 545. The Hon'ble Chancery Division, while acknowledging the difference between the person bound by order of Court and a person, though not bound by such order, but conducting himself in the manner so as to obstruct the course of justice, held, "In the one case the party who is bound by the injunction is proceeded against for the purpose of enforcing the order of the Court for the benefit of the person who got it. In the other case the Court will not allow its process to be set at naught and treated with contempt." Similarly, Lord Denning in Acrow (Automation) Ltd. v. Rex Chainbelt Inc., (1971) 3 All ER 1175 held, "The Court has jurisdiction to commit for contempt person, not a party to the action who knowing of an injunction, aids and abets the defendant in breaking it."

The aforementioned principles were adopted by the Hon'ble Supreme Court in Sita Ram v. Balbir alias Bali, (2017) 2 SCC 456, while imposing liability on third persons, aiding and abetting the contemnor in flouting the orders of the Hon'ble Court. The Hon'ble Madras High Court in Vidya Charan Shukla v. Tamil Nadu Olympic Association & Anr., AIR 1991 Mad. 323, while carrying out an exhaustive review of the case laws on the subject, observed, "We can see thus clearly that the Courts in India invariably accepted the law applied in England and found (1) a party to the suit if he had notice or knowledge of the order of the Court and (2) a third party or a stranger, if he had aided or abetted the violation with notice or knowledge of the order of injunction guilty of civil contempt and otherwise found a third party guilty of criminal contempt if he has been found knowingly obstructing implementation of its order or direction.."

While discussing the scope of third-party liability in case of violation of the order of temporary injunction[7], the Hon'ble High Court of Delhi in Krishna Gupta v. Narendra Nath & Anr., 2017 (166) DRJ 394 held, "The framework of Order XXXIX Rule 2A of the CPC does not rule out any person against whom an injunction order is granted. It is noteworthy that the expression used in the said provision is that "a person guilty of disobedience or breach of injunction order" is liable for the consequences spelt out in Rule 2A. This means that not only are the parties to the main proceedings expected to respect and obey an order passed by the court, but even those persons who are not parties to the suit but have notice or knowledge of the said order must comply with it and if they still proceed to aid or abet or violate an injunction order, they can be held guilty of civil contempt." Clearly, in the instant case, liability of third party for violation of order of injunction was upheld on the reading of the provisions of Order XXXIX Rule 2A[8] of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, especially the words, "a person guilty of disobedience or breach of injunction order" used therein imposing liability not only on the parties to the proceeding for violation, rather, on third persons, having notice of such order, aiding and abetting violation. The Hon'ble Court acknowledged that the liability of third persons for contempt arises where such persons, having sufficient notice/ awareness of order, violates the order or abets/ aids such violation. Evidently, liability of third persons arise only when being aware of the order of the Court, such persons aid/ abet violation[9] of the order of the Court or if such person knowingly obstructs implementation of the order or direction of the Court[10]. Therefore, such third person against whom allegations of violation of an injunction order are leveled, is entitled to prove his innocence by demonstrating that the order passed was not to his knowledge or that the order was ambiguous and reasonably capable of more than one interpretation or that he did not have the intention to disobey the said order, but had conducted himself in accordance with his own bona fide interpretation of the said order[11].

Conclusively, mere absence of law specifically providing for the liability of third party in contempt proceedings has not acted as a deterrent for the Courts to reprimand the violators of its orders, though, not specifically named therein or expressly bound by it. In fact, through the process of adoption and traversing the rugged terrains through years, Courts have developed a mechanism wherein no violator of its order/ injunction is left unpunished, even though not a party to a proceeding before Court. Clearly an act of violation of order of the order of Court or interfering with the administration of justice by third person amounts to contempt by such third person. As Lord Justice Eveleigh in Z LTD. v. A-Z AND AA-LL, [1982] Q.B. 558 observed, "It is true that his conduct may very often be seen as possessing a dual character of contempt of court by himself and aiding and abetting the contempt by another, but the conduct will always amount to contempt of court by himself. It will be conduct which knowingly interferes with the administration of justice by causing the order of the court to be thwarted."

[1] In Re: Vinay Chandra Mishra, (1995) 2 SCC 584

[2] Court on its own motion v. Rajiv Khosla and Ors., Contempt Case (Cri) No. 2/2006 dated 27.07.2006 (Delhi High Court)- "The jurisdiction of contempt is an extraordinary jurisdiction and normally equated to quasi-criminal proceedings."

[3] Section 2(b) Contempt of Courts Act, 1971

[4] Section 2(c) Contempt of Courts Act, 1971

[5] Dulal Chandra Bhar v. Sukumar Banerjee, AIR 1958 Cal. 474

[6] Section 12 Contempt of Courts Act, 1971

[7] Order XXXIX Rules 1 and 2 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908

[8] Hon'ble Supreme Court in Food Corporation of India v. Sukh Deo Prasad, (2009) 5 SCC 665 has held that the power exercised by the Court under Order XXXIX Rule 2A of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 is punitive in nature, akin to the power to punish for civil contempt under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

[9] Civil Contempt

[10] Criminal Contempt

[11] Krishna Gupta v. Narendra Nath & Anr., 2017 (166) DRJ 394

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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