The Madras High Court recently observed that the period of Limitation under section 20 of the Contempt of Courts Act 1970 should be harmoniously read with Article 215 of the Constitution of India. The limitation under section 20 has to be scrupulously followed in all cases and those provisions are to be read harmoniously with Article 215 of the Constitution of India.
The Court was hearing a contempt application against the Director of the Local Fund Audit in Kuralagam Chennai alleging his failure to comply with an order of the Court dated 02.09.2014, passed in an earlier writ petition. The writ petition was filed by the petitioner based on the order of a Finance Department of the Madurai (West) Panchayat Union which stated that a bonus increment had to be sanctioned as an incentive in respect of employees who were in the special grade beyond 10 years. However since the petitioner had retired from service before the completion of such period, she had become ineligible for availing such bonus which had led to her filing such writ petition.
The Court in such petition had directed the respondent to consider her representation against such order. After her representation was rejected, the petitioner filed the said contempt application after a lapse of about 1.5 years from the date of the order of the Court.
Section 20 of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, states
"No court shall initiate any proceedings of 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. —No court shall initiate any proceedings of 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"
The contention before the High Court therefore pertained to the limitation to be followed for filing of contempt as decided by the Court in previous cases. The counsel for the petitioner submitted that petitions can be entertained beyond the period of limitation under Article 215 of the Constitution. To support her claim, the petitioner relied upon a number of orders.
While discussing the general principles regarding contempt, the Constitution under Article 215 provides power to the High Court to punish for contempt itself. The general principle of law is that in the presence of a Special Act in respect of limitation, the Constitution has to be read harmoniously and cogently with the Special Act. Although this did not imply that powers under Article 215 cannot be exercised beyond 1 year, it can only be done in exceptional circumstances.
The Court in this regard, referred to the clarification given by the Supreme Court that section 20 which applies to civil and criminal contempt would also apply to contempt committed on the face of the High Court of Supreme Court and even Subordinate Courts. Referring to a plethora of cases, it further emphasized that jurisdiction of the Court automatically evaporates and the Court loses jurisdiction under the said Act after the limitation period.
Further discussing on the purpose of the contempt law, the Court observed that the power to punish for contempt is conferred to arm the Courts to enforce their orders and punishing obstruction in administration of justice. Power to punish for contempt is its inherent jurisdiction as the High Court is a Court of record but such power is subject to Section 20.
The Court referred to the case of Pallav Seth V. Custodian & Ors. [(2001)7SCC 549] where it was held that section 20 neither stifles not abrogates the power bestowed upon the Apex Court under Article 215 of the Constitution. The Special law would override and take precedence over the general law. Hence Article 215 has to be read in consonance with Section 20 of the Act. The Court further observed that in case of contempt proceedings which were not initiated suo moto, as was done in this case, proper construction must be placed on section 20. The High Court cannot invoke powers under Article 215 by entertaining applications beyond the period of one year so as to dilute or eradicate the law prescribed under Section 20 of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971.
The Supreme Court has held that contempt applications can be entertained beyond one year in case of exceptional circumstances, in order to prevent situations where gross injustice would occur and even then such power needed to be sparingly exercised. With regards to exceptional circumstances warranting interference under Article 215 it was stated that generalization must never be encouraged. The facts of each case must be considered as a litigant may come out with an interpretation that an injustice is caused to all orders or judgments passed by the High Courts.
After discussing the above principles, in the instant case, Justice S.M Subramaniam rejected the petitioner's plea:
The writ petitioner was found not eligible for the claim set out in her representation and further, her case was considered by the competent authorities and this apart the Contempt Application is filed, after the period of limitation, this Court has no hesitation in coming into the conclusion that the respondent had not committed any willful disobedience of the order of this Court.
Therefore the contempt application was dismissed.
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