Can High Court Initiate Contempt Proceedings For Alleged Contempt Of Supreme Court?

Article 215 of the Constitution of India states that every High Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself.

Section 10 of the Contempt of Courts Act reads thus: Every High Court shall have and exercise the same jurisdiction, powers and authority, in accordance with the same procedure and practice, in respect of contempts of courts subordinate to it as it has and exercises in respect of contempts of itself:..

Section 11 further provides that a High Court shall have jurisdiction to inquire into or try a contempt of itself or of any court subordinate to it, whether the contempt is alleged to have been committed within or outside the local limits of its jurisdiction, and whether the person alleged to be guilty of contempt is within or outside such limits.

Reading these provisions together, it is clear that they talk about the powers of the High Court with respect to contempt of itself and that of courts subordinate it. Can it invoke these powers for alleged contempt of the Supreme Court?

This issue was addressed by the Supreme Court in Vitusah Oberoi vs Court Of Its Own Motion [2017] 1 S.C.R. 25 ; 2017 SCC (2) 314. The Court noted that there is nothing in the Contempt of Courts Act or in Article 215 of the Constitution which can be said to empower the High Court to initiate proceedings suo-motu or otherwise for the contempt of a superior Court like the Supreme Court of India. “The power to punish for contempt vested in a Court of Record under Article 215 does not, however, extend to punishing for the contempt of a superior court. Such a power has never been recognised as an attribute of a court of record nor has the same been specifically conferred upon the High Courts under Article 215. A priori if the power to punish under Article 215 is limited to the contempt of the High Court or courts subordinate to the High Court as appears to us to be the position, there was no way the High Court could justify invoking that power to punish for the contempt of a superior court. That is particularly so when the superior court’s power to punish for its contempt has been in no uncertain terms recognised by Article 129 of the Constitution. The availability of the power under Article 129 and its plenitude is yet another reason why Article 215 could never have been intended to empower the High Courts to punish for the contempt of the Supreme Court. The logic is simple. If Supreme Court does not, despite the availability of the power vested in it, invoke the same to punish for its contempt, there is no question of a Court subordinate to the Supreme Court doing so. Viewed from any angle, the order passed by the High Court appears to us to be without jurisdiction, hence, liable to be set aside.”, it was observed.

It must be noticed that the Supreme Court in Arnesh Kumar vs State of Bihar [2014] 8 S.C.R. 128 : 2014 (8) SCC 273 had held that in all cases where the arrest of a person is not required under Section 41(1) Cr.P.C. the police officer is required to issue notice directing the accused to appear before him at a specified place and time. While issuing guidelines, it was also observed that the failure to comply with the directions issued by it shall apart from rendering the police officers concerned liable for departmental action, they shall also be liable to be punished for contempt of court to be instituted before High Court having territorial jurisdiction. Following this, various High Courts have initiated contempt proceedings against Police Officer for violation of ‘Arnesh Kumar’ Guidelines. Some of them resulted in conviction and sentencing of the police officers. In this regard, some High Courts have relied on Vitusah (supra) to close the contempt proceedings for violating ‘Arnesh Kumar’ guidelines. [See for example, Gujarat HC, Punjab and Haryana HC, orders]. However, the question remains whether, if High Courts have no jurisdiction to entertain contempt proceedings with respect to contempt of the Supreme Court, can they still invoke Arnesh Kumar and entertain contempt petitions?

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