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Vicarious Liability As A Principle Cannot Be Applied To A Contempt Case: Supreme Court

Ashok KM
26 Oct 2021 2:40 PM GMT
Vicarious Liability As A Principle Cannot Be Applied To A Contempt Case: Supreme Court
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The Supreme Court observed that vicarious liability as a principle cannot be applied to a case of contempt.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.In this case, the appellants were held...

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The Supreme Court observed that vicarious liability as a principle cannot be applied to a case of contempt.

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.

In this case, the appellants were held guilty of willful disobedience of the order passed by the High Court 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.

The bench, at the outset, observed:

8. 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, a 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 a 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 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. It 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. It said:

"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 the 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."

Observing thus, the bench set aside the High Court order.


Case name and Citation: Dr. U.N. Bora, Ex. Chief Executive Officer vs Assam Roller Flour Mills Association | LL 2021 SC 593

Case no. and Date: CrA 1967 OF 2009 | 26 October 2021

Coram: Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MM Sundresh



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