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Courts cannot invoke contempt powers arbitrarily, says Supreme Court

October 27, 2008 12:49 IST

The Supreme Court has ruled that a court cannot exercise the power of contempt in an arbitrary manner as such proceedings should be initiated to ensure its order is complied with and "not to necessarily proceed against persons as if they are petty criminals."

"A person cannot be sentenced on mere probability.Wilful disobedience and contumacious conduct is the basis on which a contemnor can be punished," the apex court observed while dropping the contempt proceedings initiated by the Calcutta high court against two members of a TV production company.

While contempt of court is a matter which had to be dealt with all seriousness, the burden of proof should be upon the person who made such an allegation, it said.

"The purpose and object of initiation of a proceeding under the provisions of the Act (contempt) is only to see that the order of the court is complied with and not to necessarily proceed against persons as if they are petty criminals," a bench of Justices S B Sinha and Cyriac Joseph observed.

In this case the Calcutta high court initiated contempt proceedings against the director and another employee of the production house Three Cheer Entertainment Private Limited on the basis of a complaint by the Calcutta Electricity Company Ltd.

The CECL had earlier filed a Rs 20 crore defamation suit against the production house for its programme Khoj Khabar aired on ETV Bangla in which allegations of corruption in the government owned company were made.

The high court had passed an injunction against further telecast and directed the production house to hand over the CDs relating to the programme to two receivers appointed by the court.

But the CDs were purportedly handed over to some strangers whom the production house presumed to be the receivers.

The CECL subsequently filed a contempt petition against the director and another employee Sanat Roy alleging that the CDs were not handed over to the receivers upon which the high court initiated contempt proceedings and later convicted them.

However, it did not impose any sentence and fixed another day for hearing, but imposed a fine of Rs 10,000 'for the time being.'

Aggrieved by the order, the production house filed a Special Leave Petition in the apex court contending that it did not commit any contempt and also stated that it did not receive any notice from the high court asking them to hand over the CDs to the receivers.

Upholding the contemnors' plea, the apex court said there was no record to prove whether the notice issued by the high court for handing over the CDs was communicated to the production house.

"In our opinion, the facts and materials placed before us do not establish that there was any wilful disobedience or contumacious conduct on the part of the appellant," the bench observed.

The apex court also termed as "piecemeal" the sentence imposed by the high court.

"We also do not appreciate that a fine of Rs 10,000 was imposed upon the appellants by an order dated on August 22 'for the time being.' We have not been shown any provision in the Act or any precedent that a court may impose sentence upon the contemnors in piecemeal," the bench observed.

The apex court said that it was also strange that the High Court while holding the contemnors guilty of contempt chose not to impose the sentence on the same day.

"If the appellants have been found to be guilty of commission of contempt, they should have been punished on the same day. Why the extra ordinary procedure of asking them to appear on another day for hearing on quantum of sentence was adopted is not understood," the bench observed.

In view of such shortcomings, the apex court said it was dropping the contempt proceedings.




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