Whether the Supreme Court has jurisdiction and power to take action for contempt of subordinate?

The Supreme Court and the High Court both exercise concurrent jurisdiction under the constitutional scheme in matters relating to fundamental rights under Article 32 and 226 of the Constitution, therefore Supreme Court’s jurisdiction and power to take action for contempt of subordinate courts would not be inconsistent to any constitutional scheme. There may be occasions when attack on Judges and Magistrate of subordinate courts may have wide repercussions throughout the country, in that situation it may not be possible for a High Court to contain the same, as a result of which the administration of justice in the country may be paralysed, in that situation the Apex Court must intervene to ensure smooth functioning of courts.

The Apex Court is duty bound to take effective steps within the constitutional provisions to ensure a free and fair administration of justice throughout the country, for that purpose it must wield the requisite power to take action for contempt of subordinate courts. Ordinarily, the High Court would protect the subordinate court from any onslaught on their independence, but in exceptional cases, extraordinary situation may prevail affecting the administration of public justice or where the entire judiciary is affected, the Apex Court may directly take cognizance of contempt of subordinate courts.

Supreme court struck a note of caution that the Supreme Court will sparingly exercise its inherent power in taking cognizance of the contempt of subordinate courts, as ordinarily matters relating to contempt of subordinate courts must be dealt with by the High Courts. The instant case is of exceptional nature, as the incident created a situation where functioning of the subordinate courts all over the country was adversely affected, and the administration of justice was paralysed, therefore, the supreme Court took cognizance of the matter.

Mr. Nariman contended that in our country there is no court of universal jurisdiction, as the jurisdiction of all courts including the Supreme Court is limited. Article 129, as well as the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, do not confer, any express power to the apex Court with regard to contempt of the subordinate courts, the Court cannot by construing Article 129 assume jurisdiction in the matter which is not entrusted to it by law. He placed reliance on the observations of the Supreme Court in Naresh Shridhar Mirajkar & Ors. v. State of Maharashtra & Ors.1. Court considered the decision but found nothing therein to support the contention of Mr. Nariman.

It is true that courts constituted under a law enacted by the Parliament or the State Legislature have limited jurisdiction and they cannot assume jurisdiction in a matter, not expressly assigned to them, but that is not so in the case of a superior court of record constituted by the Constitution. Such a court does not have a limited jurisdiction instead it has power to determine its own jurisdiction. No matter is beyond the jurisdiction of a superior court of record unless it is expressly shown to be so, under the provisions of the Constitution. In the absence of any express provision in the Constitution the Apex court being a court of record has jurisdiction in every matter and if there be any doubt, the Court has power to determine its jurisdiction. If such determination is made by High Court, the same would be subject to appeal to the Supreme Court, but if the jurisdiction is determined by thie Court it would be final. Halsbury’s Laws of England Vol. 10 Para 7 13, states:

“Prima facie no matter is deemed to be beyond the jurisdiction of a superior court unless it is expressly shown to be so, while nothing is within the jurisdiction of an inferior court unless it is expressly shown on the face of the proceedings that the particular matter is within the cognizance of the particular court.”

What constitutes contempt of court?

The Common Law definition of contempt of Court is: ‘An act or omission calculated to interfere with the due administration of justice.’ (Bowen L.J. in Helmore v. Smith2. The contempt of court as defined by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 includes civil and criminal contempt. Criminal contempt as defined by the Act: ‘Means the publica- tion whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, or otherwise of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which scandalizes or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or prejudices, or interferes or tends or to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or interferes, or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner. The definition of criminal contempt is wide enough to include any act by a person which would tend to interfere with the administration of justice or which would lower the authority of court.

the necessity for the law of contempt

The public have a vital stake in effective and orderly administration of justice. The Court has the duty of protecting the interest of the community in the due administration of justice and, so, it is entrusted with the power to commit for contempt of court, not to protect the dignity of the Court against insult or injury, but, to protect and vindicate the right of the public so that the administration of justice is not perverted, prejudiced, obstructed or interfered with. “It is a mode of vindicating the majesty of law, in its active manifestation against obstruction and outrage.” (Frank Furter, J. in Offutt v. U.S.3). The object and purpose of punishing contempt for interference with the administration of justice is not to safeguard or protect the dignity of the Judge or the Magistrate, but the purpose is to preserve the authority of the courts to ensure an ordered life in society. In Attorney-General v. Times Newspapers4 , the necessity for the law of contempt was summarised by Lord Morris as:

“In an ordered community, courts are established for the pacific settlement of disputes and for the maintenance of law and order. In the general interests of the community it is imperative that the authority of the courts should not be imperilled and that recourse to them should not be subject to unjustifiable interference. When such unjustifiable interference is suppressed it is not because those charged with the responsibilities of administering justice are concerned for their own dignity: it is because the very structure of ordered life is at risk if the recognised courts of the land are so flouted and their authority wanes and is supplanted.”

The Chief Judicial Magistrate is head of the Magistracy in the District who administers justice to ensure, protect and safeguard the rights of citizens. The subordinate courts at the district level cater to the need of the masses in administering justice at the base level. By and large the majority of the people get their disputes adjudicated in subordinate courts, it is, in the general interest of the community that the authority of subordinate courts is protected.

If the CJM is led into trap by unscrupulous Police Officers and if he is assaulted, handcuffed and roped, the public is bound to lose faith in courts, which would be destrictive of basic structure of an ordered society. If this is permitted Rule of Law shall be supplanted by Police Raj. Viewed in this perspective the incident is not a case of physical assault on an individual judicial officer, instead it is an onslaught on the institution of the judiciary itself. The incident is a clear interference with the administration of justice, lowering its judicial authority. Its effect was not confined to one District or State, it had a tendency to affect the entire judiciary in the country. The incident highlights a dangerous trend that if the Police is annoyed with the orders of a presiding officer of a court, he would be arrested on flimsy manufactured charges, to humiliate him publicly as has been done in the instant case.

The conduct of Police Officers in assaulting and humiliate the CJM brought the authority and administration of justice into disrespect, affecting the public confidence in the institution of justice. “The summary power of punishment for contempt has been conferred on the courts to keep a blaze of glory around them, to deter people from attempting to render them contemptible in the eyes of the public. These powers are necessary to keep the course of justice free, as it is of great importance to society.” (Oswald on Contempt of Court). The power to punish contempt is vested in the Judges not for their personal protection only, but for the protection of public justice, whose interest, requires that decency and decorum is preserved in Courts of Justice. Those who have to discharge duty in a Court of Justice are protected by the law, and shielded in the discharge of their duties, any deliberate interference with the discharge of such duties either in court or outside the court by attacking the presiding officers of the court, would amount to criminal contempt and the courts must take serious cognizance of such conduct.

  1. [1966] 3 SCR 744.
  2. [1886] 35 Ch. D. 436 at 455.
  3. [1954] 348 US 11.
  4. [1974] A.C. 273 at p. 302.

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