What Happens When One Wilfully Disobeys a Court Order?

The public’s confidence and faith in the justice administration system is the foundation of the judiciary. The capacity of the court to penalize for disobedience is designed to ensure this trust and confidence, as well as the judiciary’s autonomy from outside influences. Three significant clauses of the Indian Constitution, including articles 19(2), 129, and 215, expressly acknowledge this fact. The Supreme Court and the High Courts, respectively, are made courts of record by Articles 129 and215, and the contempt authority has been understood historically as part of the concept of court of record. Disobedience to a court of law or its judgment is referred to as contempt in law.

The acknowledgment of contempt of court and the ability to punish contempt is critical for a country like India, which is founded on the concept of rule of law, which necessitates the supremacy of the law, because the judiciary is seen as the final bastion of hope and justice for its population. Contempt can be of two types: criminal contempt and civil contempt. Criminal contempt of court is frequently defined as actions that would ordinarily be associated with the phrase “contempt of court,” such as making a severe disruption in the courtroom, shouting at the judge, or refusing to testify before a grand jury. Civil contempt of court occurs most frequently when someone fails to follow a court order, causing harm to the rights of a private party. Failing to pay court-ordered child support, for example, might result in civil contempt charges. The goal of contempt jurisdiction is to ensure that the grandeur and dignity of law courts are preserved, and that their public image is not tarnished in any way. If the common man is caused to lose respect for a judge acting in the course of his judicial duties by defamatory remarks or writings, the public’s faith in the courts is rudely damaged, and the perpetrator must be punished. In essence, the law of contempt serves as a guardian of the seat of justice rather than the judge who occupies it.


Lord Hardwicke L. C., in1742, explored the definition of the word “contempt of court,” identifying three types of behaviors that qualify as contempt: A sort of contempt is scandalizing the court itself. Abusing persons involved in cases before this court may also be considered contempt of court. The court may also be in contempt for prejudicing mankind against individuals before the case is heard.”[1]

Any act done or writing published which is likely to bring a court or a Judge into contempt, or to degrade his authority, or to impede with the orderly course of justice or the authorized process of the court, is a contempt of court,” according to Halsbury’s Law of England. Any incidence in the judicial process may, nevertheless, be criticized publicly or privately, as long as the criticism is reasonable and moderate, and expressed in good faith. The lack of any desire to go to court is a significant argument in a person’s favor who is accused of contempt.[2]

The Contempt of Court Act of 1971, (here onwards referred to as the ‘Act’) deals with the concept of contempt of court. The Supreme Court and the High Court, respectively, are empowered by Articles 129 and 215 of the Indian Constitution to penalize anyone for their respective acts of contempt. The power of the High Court to penalize contempt of its subordinate courts is defined in Section 10 of the Act. Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution does not apply to the power to penalize for contempt of court under Articles 129 and 215 of the Constitution. Anything that restricts or confines the scope of judicial procedures would inevitably obstruct the administration of justice and interfere with the due course of justice. In India, Section 2(a) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971 defines contempt of court as either civil or criminal contempt.


1. Civil Contempt

Civil contempt is defined as willful disobedience to any decision, decree, direction, order, writ, or other process of a court or willful breach of an undertaking provided to a court under Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971.

The Supreme Court declared in Kapildeo Prasad Sah & Ors. v. State of Bihar & Ors.,(1999) 7 SCC569, that disobedience of a court order is a violation of the Rule of Law doctrine. As a result, the law of contempt can be thought of as the thread that binds the Constitution’s core structure together. One of the essential elements of the Rule of Law is the preservation of the Court’s integrity. The law of contempt must be applied with care, and it must not be exploited as a means of retaliation. Any attempt to undermine the Court’s dignity in the guise of ordinary criticism, on the other hand, is likely to be penalized.

2. Criminal Contempt

Criminal contempt has been described as the publication, whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever that:

  • Scandalizes or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court;
  • Prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, any court;
  • Prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with,
  • In any other way interferes or threatens to interfere with, or obstructs or threatens to obstruct, the administration of justice;

Criminal contempt of court is the act of engaging in contravention to the Court’s authority, justice, and dignity. It is characterized as “behavior that is intended against the Court’s dignity and authority.” Criminal contempt refers to behavior that is intended to throw the court’s authority and the administration of justice into discredit. The Supreme Court further ruled that “vilifying criticism of a Judge acting as a Judge, even in basic administrative or non-adjudicatory circumstances” is considered criminal contempt.[3]

The Supreme Court defined the term “scandalizing the court” as follows in Hari Singh Nagra & Ors. v. Kapil Sibbal & Ors.,(2010) 7 SCC 502: Scandalizing is an onslaught on Judges individually or the Court overall, with or without mentioning specific cases, that casts unfounded and defamatory insinuations on the Judges’ character or competency. ‘Scandalizing the Court’ is a handy term used to describe a publication that, while not relating to any specific case, whether current or pending, or any particular Judge, is a disreputable attack on the judicial system as a whole, with the goal of undermining the Courts’ authority and public trust in the administration of justice.

The following are the requirements for contempt of court:

1. The issuance of a legitimate court order; 

2. The following are the requirements for contempt of court:

3. The respondent’s willingness to comply, and

4. Willful disobedience to an order.


Willful disobedience quite literally means the deliberate disobedience by a person who understands what he is doing, but is not acting maliciously or evil intent. And in terms of law it means Willful disobedience refers to intentionally defying a court’s lawful order, direction, statute, regulation, policy, practice, or other instruction.

In a letter dated March8,2018, the Ministry of Law and Justice, Department of Justice, requested that the Law Commission of India investigate and recommend amending the Act 1971 to limit the meaning of contempt to simply willful disobedience of directives / judgment of Court.

In Dinesh Kumar Gupta v. United India Insurance Co. Ltd. & Ors.,(2010) 12 SCC770, it was held that non-compliance with an order, which can be construed in a variety of ways and result in a variety of implications, is not a case of willful disobedience, permitting serious consequences such as the imposition of penalties. The Supreme Court in the abovementioned decision, focusing on the aspect of willfulness in civil contempt, also stated that although there might be disobedience, if it does not show that it was intentional and purposeful, a basis for contempt cannot be established. The change effectively demotes the expressions “contempt” and “contempt of court” as referred to under the Act by limiting the scope of “contempt” to “willful disobedience of directives / judgment of Court.” Due to the obvious reduced reach of Section 10, i.e. the ability of the High Court to penalize for ‘contempt’ of subordinate court, this limitation will substantially expose them to more cases of untreated ‘contempt of court,’ notably  cases related to scandalizing.

More importantly, limiting the definition of contempt to just encompass “willful disobedience of directions/judgment of the Court” appears problematic, given the ongoing requirement for deterrent against contemptuous aspects. The effects will be reduced if the requirements are so curtailed in scope. Such a modification in the rule of contempt might possibly lower people’s respect for or apprehension of the courts, as well as increase the number of cases of blatant denial and contempt of the courts.


Section 12 of the Act provides for the punishment for contempt of court, it states that Contempt of court can be penalized by simple imprisonment for up to six months, or a fine that may charge of up to rupees two thousand, or both. However, if an apology is made to the satisfaction of the court, the accused may be freed or the punishment imposed may be remitted. If the accused makes a genuine apology, it should not be rejected simply because it is nuanced or conditional. When a person is found guilty of contempt of court in relation to an undertaking given to a court, is a company, every individual who was in charge of, and responsible to, the company for the execution of the company’s business at the time the contempt was perpetrated, as well as the organization, shall be considered guilty of the contempt and the penalty may be enforced, with the court’s permission. Such a person is not subject to the punishment if he can show that the contempt was made without his knowledge or that he did everything in his power to prevent it.

The Supreme Court and the High Courts of India are designated as Courts of Record by the Indian Constitution. It also gives the Supreme Court and each of the High Courts the authority to penalize for contempt of court. Article 129 deals with the Supreme Court’s claimed jurisdiction, states that “The Supreme Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court, including the ability to penalize for contempt of itself,” and Article 215 gives the High Courts an identical power. Under Article 235 of the Constitution, the High Courts are also tasked with supervisory jurisdiction over the lower courts. In this way, a High Court acts as a watchdog over the lower courts that fall within its jurisdiction.

The ability of the High Courts and the Supreme Court to penalize for contempt is a unique power granted by the Constitution and the Act. It is a powerful tool that, if misused, might limit the liberty of the person charged with committing a contemptuous act. The character of the power imposes a moral obligation on the Courts to utilize it with extreme caution and caution. This is particularly required since adjudication of a contempt plea frequently entails a process of self-determination of the scope, validity, and effect of the order for which disobedience is claimed. Courts shall not go beyond the order that is alleged to have been disobeyed, or inquire into matters that are not addressed or settled in the judgment or order that is said to have been disobeyed. Only those directions that are explicitly stated in a judgment or order, or that are obvious, should be considered when determining whether there’s been any disobedience or willful infringement of the same. Issues that have been decided cannot be reopened, and the plea of equities cannot be entertained. Courts must also make sure that the power available to the Court in other remedial jurisdictions, such as review or appeal, is not curtailed while considering a contempt plea. While exercising contempt authority, the Court should not issue any additional orders or directions to what has already been stated; such an exercise will be proper in other jurisdictions vested in the Court.

In Legal Remembrancer v. Matilal Ghose & Ors. (1914) I.L.R. 41 Cal.173, the Court stated that the power to punish for contempt was “arbitrary, unlimited, and uncontrolled,” and that it should be “executed with the greatest caution.”

That being said, the Supreme Court has ruled that refusing to obey a court’s final ruling and/or attempting to override it is a kind of legal malice and arbitrariness, because it is not acceptable to scrutinize a court order that has reached finality.[4]


In some situations, Section 13 of the Act stipulates that there will be no penalty for disrespectful behavior. As a general rule, no penalty will be imposed unless the court determines that the contempt is of a character that “Extensively interferes, or tends substantially to impede, with the right process of justice.” In actuality, Section13, as revised in 2006, allows for reasoning by truth to be raised as a valid defense against contempt if the court determines that it is in the public interest and that the desire to invoke the defense is genuine.

The Supreme Court held in B.K. Kar v. Hon’ble the Chief Justice and his companion Justices of the Orissa High Court & Anr., AIR 1961 SC1367, that where the Court’s order is disobeyed unknowingly, inadvertently, or by misinterpretation of the meaning and object of the judgment, allegations of contempt cannot be said to have been committed because the disobedience could be unintended.

In the case of Capt. Dushyant Somal v. Smt. Sushma Somal & Anr., AIR 1981 SC1026, the Court will not be justified in penalizing an alleged contemnor if he or she can present adequate evidence to show that obeying an order is impracticable. A person cannot be held in contempt of court for defying a court order unless the disobedience is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, with “the level of proof being similar, if not identical, to that used in a criminal prosecution.”



In East India Commercial Co. Ltd. v. Collector of Customs, Calcutta, AIR 1962 SC 1893, The Supreme Court ruled that an administrative authority or tribunal cannot disregard a state’s highest court’s declaration of law. The Supreme Court pointed out that, in light of the provisions of articles215, 226 and 227 of the Constitution, it would be anomalous to suggest that a tribunal over which the High Court has supervisory authority can disregard the law declared by that court and initiate proceedings in direct violation of it, with the result that if a tribunal can do so, all subordinate courts can do so as well. The Supreme Court also held that it is apparent in the power of supervision granted to a superior tribunal that all tribunals pertaining to its oversight should obey the law established by it, because such adherence would facilitate their smooth operation, whereas otherwise there would be uncertainty in the administration of law, and respect for law would irreversibly suffer.

Court Of Records

Both the Supreme Court and the High Courts are Courts of Record, according to the Supreme Court in Delhi Judicial Service Association v. State of Gujarat AIR 1991 SC 2176. The term “Court of Record” is not defined in the Constitution, but it is widely used in the legal community. A Court of Record is “a Court in which the acts and judicial procedures are recorded for an everlasting remembrance and witness,” and it has the authority to punish contempt of itself and subordinate Courts summarily. In M.V. Elizabeth v. Harwan Investment and Trading AIR 1993 SC1014, the Supreme Court declared that High Courts have unrestricted jurisdiction, along with the authority to decide their own powers.

High Courts Cannot Overrule Decisions of Supreme Court:

The Honorable Supreme Court has stated in the matter of Suganthi Suresh Kumar v. Jagdeeshan AIR 2002 SC 681 that it is not possible for the High Court to override the Supreme Court’s decision on the grounds that the Supreme Court put out the legal position without evaluating any other point. It is not simply an issue of judicial discipline for India’s High Courts; it is also the Constitution’s mandate, as stated in Article141, that the law declared by the Supreme Court be obligatory on all courts within India’s jurisdiction.

Limitation On Power To Initiate Contempt.

“No court shall conduct any contempt proceedings, either on its own motion or otherwise, after the expiration of a term of one year from the day on which the contempt is alleged to have been committed,” says Section 20 of the Contempt of Court Act of 1971. The Supreme Court interpreted the phrase “initiate any proceedings for contempt” in Section 20 of the Act in Om Prakash Jaiswal v. G.K. Mittal AIR 2000 SC 1136. The term ‘initiate’ was thought to refer to the first steps, action, or move. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “initiation of contempt proceedings” occurs when the court applies its mind to an allegation and chooses to order the accused contemnor under Section 17 to show reason as to why he shouldn’t be penalized.

Biding Nature Of High Courts

In Baradakanta Mishra v. Bhimsen Dixit, 1972 AIR 2466, The Supreme Court reaffirmed the legal position concerning the binding nature of the High Court’s decision, holding that the appellant’s failure to obey the prior High Court ruling is structured to cause confusion in the administration of law. It will stifle respect for the High Court’s decisions and weaken the High Court’s constitutional power. It will stifle respect for the High Court’s decisions and weaken the High Court’s constitutional power. As a result, the concepts that underpin the law of contempt can be applied to his actions. The analogy between the subordinate court’s disobedience and a superior court’s particular order further shows that his actions are covered by the statute of contempt. Just as noncompliance to a single court order jeopardizes the court’s power and dignity in that case, so does any deliberate and mala fide failure to follow the law spelled down in a previous decision jeopardize the High Court’s constitutional authority and respect. While the former has a limited impact on a single instance and a small number of people, the latter has a far broader and more destructive influence. It is designed not only to weaken the High Court’s constitutional authority and respect in general, but also to weaken the Rule of Law and create vexing doubt and confusion in the administration. Just as noncompliance to a single court order jeopardizes the court’s power and dignity in that case, so does any intentional and mala fide failure to follow the law spelled down in a prior decision jeopardize the High Court’s constitutional authority and respect. While the first has a limited impact on a single instance and a small number of people, the latter has a far broader and more destructive influence. It is designed not only to weaken the High Court’s constitutional authority and respect in general, but also to weaken the Rule of Law and create vexing doubt and confusion in the legal administration.

Willful Breach of Undertaking is a Civil Contempt.

In Balasubramaniyam v. P. Janakaraju & Anr. The High Court of Karnataka held in this case that court rulings must be followed until and until they are overturned in an appeal or revision. The Court noted that the definition of Civil Contempt involves deliberate breach of an undertaking granted to a Court while explaining the concepts relevant to contempt legislation. In the public interest, solemn commitments taken before a court with the goal of getting some benefit should not be willfully broken. No litigant should be allowed to back out of a solemn undertaking provided to the Court, as this will set harmful precedents and defeat the purpose of undertakings in the first place. It was also noted that once litigants offer a Court an undertaking, they must follow it in all situations, with the exception of fraud or statutory bar. They can’t just breach an agreement and then try to defend it later. Breach of a solemn pledge issued to a court is a serious matter that will require significant attention.


To summarize, contempt of court is an offense that encompasses a wide range of behaviors. Its broad scope is often a source of concern, with some judges using it to quell any criticism leveled against them. Furthermore, there are some fundamental problems about whether crimes like contempt of court—or at least specific elements of contempt—are compatible with India’s claim to liberal democracy. Article 19(1)(a), which grants all people the right to free speech and expression, contains a few limitations, including contempt of court and defamation. As a result, the subject of law of contempt is concerned with reconciling the two most crucial requirements for the existence and functioning of a free democratic society. The substantive and procedural features of India’s law of contempt are complicated by the fact that their sources are diverse and, by their very nature, difficult to identify and determine. The right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the Constitution, as well as the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution, are directly affected by a court’s contempt power. The independence of the judiciary, which is important for the survival of a free democratic society, as well as the authority and dignity of the judicial system, are all affected by the court’s limited or restricted power.

[1] In re : Read v. Huggonson, (1742) 2 Atk. 469.

[2] Halsbury’s Laws of England (3rd Edn., Vol. 8).

[3] Baradakanta Mishra v. Bhimsen Dixit, AIR 1972 SC 2466.

[4] Union of India & Anr. v. Ashok Kumar Aggarwal, (2013) 16 SCC 147

Author: Sakshi Deo from Amity Law School, Mumbai.

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