Supreme Court reiterates that Wilful Disobedience is Necessary to Constitute Civil Contempt

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Supreme Court, Jurisdiction of High Court, section 153c of the act, Deputation Allowance, Unorganized Labour Payments

The Appellant had filed a contempt petition against the Respondent. That the Respondent failed to follow the directions of the Industrial Tribunal. The Tribunal had ordered the Respondent to regularize and departmentalise the concerned workers in the Food Corporation of India. These workers were working through contract labour cooperative societies and private contractors. The award of the Tribunal attained its finality when the Supreme Court upheld the award.

Arguments

The Appellants contended that the Respondent failed to comply with the directions of the Tribunal. Under the Departmental Labour System, the Tribunal ordered a regularisation. The Tribunal’s Award, therefore, mandates this as per the Appellants. However, the Respondent regularized the workers under the Direct Payment System. So, the Appellant filed the civil contempt petition. 

On the contrary, the Award as per the Respondent did not specify the department under which workers are to be regularised. The Award, on the contrary, didn’t specify the department under which the workers are regularised. Neither did it specify the issue of the department before the Tribunal nor referred to in the Appeal. Moreover, the Respondent contended that the Departmental Labour System was a dying cadre and hence the labourers were regularised under the Direct Payment System. It is, therefore, argued that this is not a case of disobedience, much less willful disobedience of the order. 

Court’s Observation 

The Court referred to its decision in Ram Kishan v Tarun Bajaj & Ors., (2014) 16 SCC 204. In this case, the Court laid down the law regarding initiating civil contempt action. While the contempt jurisdiction of the court is a powerful weapon, the Courts have to be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt. And to punish a contemnor, the “willful” disobedience of the contemnor has to be established. Therefore, in the words of the Court: 

“…there has to be a calculated action with an evil motive on his part. Even if there is disobedience of an order, but such disobedience is the result of some compelling circumstances under which it was not possible for the contemnor to comply with the order, the contemnor cannot be punished”

Hence, the Court observed that disobedience must be willful, deliberate, and with full knowledge of consequences flowing therefrom. 

The Court then noted that the award of the Tribunal which was later upheld by this Court did not specify the department to which the workers were to be regularised. A general order to regularise and departmentalise the workers was issued by the Tribunal. Since the Departmental Labour System was in a dying cadre, the Respondent had regularised the workers in Direct Payment System. In this regard, the Respondent did not fail to comply with the directions issued by the Tribunal. Hence, there was no wilful disobedience of the said order.

Court’s Decision

The Court, observing that the Tribunal did not issue a specific direction to the Respondent, affirmed that the Respondent had complied with the order. It further said, that there is no contempt action against the General order. So, the Court dismissed the Appeal. 


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