While hearing a contempt of court case recently, Justice N. Kirubakaran of the Madras High Court cited a startling piece of data. There is a growing number of contempt of court cases in India and these pertain mainly to people not complying with court orders.
The Madras High Court alone had witnessed a huge increase in the number of such cases coming to it — from 432 in 1990, to around 2,434 in 2012. There are no exact figures available for the nation as a whole, but legal experts say that this is a rising trend all over the country.
A court directive or ruling is final and binding, unless the defendant appeals in a higher court. So essentially, should one choose not to appeal, one is expected to carry out the court order.
Most contempt of court petitions being filed now relate to the non-compliance with court orders, rather than disrespect being shown to the judiciary in so many words. That is to say, more and more people are flagrantly ignoring orders issued by the court, and as a result, people who have won cases in court are not receiving the benefit of the judgments.
“Yes, this is a big problem,” admits Manan Kumar Mishra, chairman of the Bar Council of India. “There is a tremendous number of such cases coming up each year. And to add to this, the rate of punishment is low. In most cases, officials just ask for an unqualified apology, and do not punish people according to the guidelines of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971.”
The Madras High Court case involved a 92-year-old freedom fighter, A.P. Gounder, who had been jailed for six months when he participated in the Quit India movement of 1942. Gounder is entitled to a pension from the ministry of home affairs. However, despite a court order in November, 2011, asking the government to pay Gounder his pension within four months, nothing materialised even a year after the stipulated time period. This prompted Gounder to file a contempt petition.
The concept of contempt of court is enshrined in the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Sections 1 to 9 set down what does not constitute contempt of court (it doesn’t specifically state what exactly does constitute contempt of court). Section 12 outlines the punishments for being found guilty of the charge. Sub-sections 4 and 5 are of particular interest, both of which detail the punishments due to companies if they are found guilty of contempt (which includes not complying with court orders).
“The courts are the highest authority of law in the country,” says B.C. Nirmal, head of the department of law at the Banaras Hindu University. “You have to abide by their decisions. If you do not respect their decisions, then who else’s will you respect?”
And therein lies the problem. The courts assume that people will abide by their ruling because that’s what is expected. But in reality many don’t. And since there are no bodies to ensure that the orders are being carried out, they often get away with it too. “Maybe it is time to set up some sort of a supervisory body,” says Manoj Kumar Sinha, professor of law at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Calcutta. “One should perhaps categorise and study what type of cases are causing the most problems, and figure out ways to stop this from happening,” he adds.
Sinha points out that most contempt of court cases are related to those that deal with policy implementation. “Take something like the Right to Education, where there are many instances of the policy not being implemented at all,” he explains. “In such cases, people often don’t follow through on court orders.”
So why has there been a rise in such cases? Mahendra Pal Singh, chairperson of the Delhi Judicial Academy, has a few ideas. “Since many of these cases are passed against the government, the latter may not agree with the ruling and choose to ignore it. That said, I would like to point out that when it comes to central or state governments, they usually implement court orders very quickly. But when orders are issued to individual government departments, often there are problems.”
Singh also feels that the lack of money and resources to actually follow through with court orders might be a problem. “I have seen some orders that are just not implementable.”
Others say that in a way the judiciary is also responsible for the rise in contempt of court cases. “So many courts today issue contempt judgments against people in order to establish the respect due to them. I don’t think they should be doing that,” says Nirmal.
There is a diametrically opposite view too — as some feel that courts are actually not doing enough to make sure their orders are carried out. “Courts are not keen on implementing their own orders. And there is no government oversight to ensure that things are followed through. So in the end, people just ignore the fact that they’ve been directed by a court to take appropriate action,” says Mishra.
Indeed, the judiciary does need to take note of the fact that such a huge number of contempt of court cases are being filed. For as Singh points out, “Lacklustre action is detrimental, and it slowly erodes the court’s authority.”