In a strongly worded opinion, the Supreme Court lamented that litigants frequently disobey court orders because courts are lenient towards those found culpable of contempt of court proceedings and close such proceedings if the offenders subsequently apologise. Hiralal Somabhai Contractor vs. Balwantbhai Somabhai Bhandari
The bench of Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra stated that such leniency teaches litigants how effective an apology can be as a weapon.
The bench opined that such leniency has actually emboldened unscrupulous litigants to disobey court orders or violate their agreements with impunity.
“With all the decorum at our disposal, we may take judicial notice of the fact that, over time, the courts have shown excessive leniency and magnanimity towards the transgressors. The bench added that there should not be a tendency for courts to show compassion when disobedience of an agreement or order is committed with impunity and full knowledge.
It also stated that courts should not take an apology if it is nothing more than a legal manoeuvre to evade responsibility, as this can diminish the prestige of the judiciary.
“A sincere contrition must involve introspection, self-introspection, atonement, and self-reform. In its absence, apologies can be described as farcical. It is also well-established that offered apologies are not to be accepted as a matter of course, and the court is not required to do so,” the Court stated.
Notably, the Court ruled that willful disobedience or breach of an undertaking given to the court by solicitors on behalf of their clients would constitute civil contempt.
Regarding this, the Court clarified:
(i) The willful transgression or disobedience of an assurance in the form of an undertaking given to the court by a counsel or advocate on behalf of his client would constitute “civil contempt” as defined by Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971.
(ii) An undertaking given to a court is subject to the provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act, whereas an undertaking given to a litigant as part of a settlement agreement or otherwise is not subject to the Act’s provisions.
(iii) Although the transfer of the suit property pendente lite (which is involved in a pending case before the court) may not be deemed void ab initio when the court is investigating such transfers in contempt proceedings, the court can declare such transactions void in order to preserve the dignity of the law. In addition to punishing the transgressor for his disobedience, the majesty of the law may require that the court issue directives nullifying any advantage gained as a result of such disobedience (the property transfer).
(iv) The beneficiaries of any contumacious transaction have no right or standing to be heard in contempt proceedings because they are bona fide purchasers of the property for value without notice and, as such, are required parties. Contempt is a matter between the court and the offender; no third party may intervene.
The Court heard appeals submitted by contempt of court offenders convicted by the Gujarat High Court under the Contempt of Courts Act.
Contrary to an undertaking given before the High Court, the appellants executed a sale deed for a substantial amount of money.
Since there was no doubt that the appellants had committed contempt of court, the Supreme Court determined that their “flimsy apology” cannot be accepted and that they must be punished.
“We ponder what the ultimate outcome could be if we accept the apology and let the appellants off the hook. First, there would be no legal repercussions for the alleged act of contempt, and second, they would continue to enjoy or keep the spoils of their contempt. We say this because they have already received a substantial portion of the transaction price from the buyers,” the court added.
The Supreme Court concluded that the High Court had correctly rejected the appellants’ contrition, which it deemed to be nothing more than a gamble.
“They (contemnors) took a calculated risk to transfer the properties and pocketed the sale proceeds,” the bench remarked. “Such phoney apologies should not be accepted by the court and allow a person who has no regard for the Majesty of the law to escape legal consequences.”
The Supreme Court then dismissed the violators’ appeal, and they were given two weeks to surrender and carry out the sentence imposed by the lower court.
Balwant Bhandari, the appellant, was represented by senior advocates Shyam Divan, Meenakshi Arora, Kapil Sibal, and Mihir Joshi, along with advocates Soumik Ghosal, Shamik Shirishbhai Sanjanwala, and Vanshdeep Dalmia.
Senior Counsel Arijit Prasad and counsel Taruna Singh Gohil represented the respondents.