Power of contempt can't be taken away by legislative enactment: Supreme Court finds Suraz India Trust guilty

The Trust had sought a recall of the Court's 2017 judgment by which it had imposed costs of ₹25 lakh on it.
Power of contempt can't be taken away by legislative enactment: Supreme Court finds Suraz India Trust guilty
Justices SK Kaul and MM Sundresh

The Supreme Court today found blacklisted petitioner Suraz India Trust guilty of contempt, observing that the Court's power to punish for contempt under Article 129 cannot be taken away even by legislative enactment. (Suraz India Trust v. Union of India)

A Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MM Sundresh frowned upon the contemnor's conduct of throwing mud at the Court, administrative staff, and the State government when he didn't get his way.

"We refuse to back off and will take it to a logical conclusion," it said.

In 2017, the NGO was also barred from “urging a cause in public interest” across any court in India. The Trust had filed 64 public interest litigation (PIL) pleas, all of which were dismissed. It was also accused of repeatedly making insinuations against the judiciary.

At the very outset of the judgment, the Bench observed that while statements made in an attempt to lower the dignity of the Court are often ignored, on certain occasions, the Court must step in.

The raison d’etre of contempt jurisdiction is to maintain the dignity of the institution of judicial forums. It is not a vindictive exercise nor are inappropriate statements by themselves capable of lowering the dignity of a Judge. These are often ignored but where despite all latitude a perennial litigant seeks to justify his existence by throwing mud at all and sundry, the Court has to step in.”

The apex court stressed that an attempt to scandalise the Court cannot be countenanced, and observed that the apologies submitted by the Trust's Chairman Rajiv Daiya were only endeavours to evade the consequences. The same was soon followed by another set of allegations, and was thus a charade.

"His actions to scandalise the Court cannot be countenanced. He continues with his contumacious behaviour."

Further, it was stated that the last apology would hardly qualify as an apology, and cannot be a defence. In this light, the Bench found no remorse on the part of the petitioner trust. Additionally, the Court noted,

"In fact, if Mr. Daiya had just merely expressed his inability to pay the amount as per his affidavit, the matter could have been left at that, with, of course, the natural consequences as contained in the order dated 01.05.2017 which disabled him from filing public interest litigations. After all, there cannot be a birthright to file public interest litigations and the level of assistance and the nature of causes as canvassed has already been adversely commented upon in the order dated 01.05.2017."

The Bench also explained that the easier path in the matter would have been to recuse themselves, but this exercise was necessary to be taken in the larger interest of the institution. It was reiterated that such litigants cannot be allowed to have their way.

Let us say at the inception that the easier path is to recuse or give up the matter instead of inviting so much trouble. But then that is not the course for which the Judges have taken oath. Sometimes the task is unenviable and difficult but it must be performed for the larger good of the institution.”

The only question that arose before the Court was whether the contemnor had a right to be heard. It was stated that the Bench was not mandated to give them an opportunity to be heard, but would still give a chance.

In light of this observation, the Court issued notice to the contemnor to appear for hearing on final sentence on October 7.

On the last date of hearing in the case, the Court gave Suraz India Trust three days to file an unconditional apology for filing frivolous litigation and making scandalous averments against the judiciary. It was hearing an application filed by the Trust seeking a recall of the Court's 2017 judgment by which it had imposed costs of ₹25 lakh on it.

Daiya subsequently made appeals to the Attorney General, and even the President and Prime Minister of India to waive the costs imposed by the apex court. At the same time, he had sought consent for filing contempt proceedings against then Chief Justice of India JS Khehar and Justice DY Chandrachud and Sanjay Kishan Kaul, who formed the Bench that imposed the costs in 2017.

He had also filed a complaint with the President of India against Justice Kaul for conducting an in-house inquiry related to the matter. He thus sought Kaul J's recusal from the case.

[Read Judgment]

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