Vicarious Liability As A Principle Cannot Be Applied To A Case Of Contempt: Supreme Court
A Bench comprising Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice MM Sundresh has held that vicarious liability as a principle cannot be applied to a case of contempt. The Bench held that 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.
A Bench was hearing an appeal filed by officials of the Assam State Agricultural Marketing Board who were held guilty by the Gauhati High Court for Contempt of Court. The High Court had taken the decision upon an application filed by Assam Roller Flour Mills and Others for violation of its judgment about levy of cess on the agricultural produce bought or sold in or outside the notified market area under section 21 of the Assam Agricultural Produce Market Act, 1972.
The contempt petition was filed in the background that the appellant had challenged the validity of certain provisions of the act, raising a ground that its members purchased the agricultural produce outside the State and thus, no cess is leviable. The High Court had upheld the validity of the law while holding that the deeming fiction would apply only to such of those cases where a trader fails to establish that there is direct evidence of sale or purchase having been undertaken outside the notified market area. It was held that disputes can be dealt with by the committee constituted. It was submitted in the contempt petition that the orders passed by the Division Bench with respect to the direct evidence produced by the members of the respondent no.1 were not looked into and scrutinized on purpose, while levying cess.
The appellants submitted that, 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 as per the judgment. 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, the appellants argued.
After hearing the parties the Bench held that,
"We are dealing with 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, the Bench further noted the Court is not expected to conduct a roving inquiry.
"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 said principle has to be applied with more vigor when disputed questions of facts are involved and they were raised earlier but consciously not dealt with by creating a specific forum to decide the original proceedings."
While setting aside the order of the High Court, the Bench further observed that there is no material to either establish their knowledge of the action of their subordinates, or that they acted in collusion with each other.
"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."