Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Administrative Tribunals: Their Contempt Jurisdiction

Certain aspects of administrative law have been dealt with on the blog in the past, however, I have not delved in depth into other aspects of this branch of law. I hope to take a non-linear approach (inspired by Christopher Nolan) in my attempts to make sense of the subject.

In this post, I intend to find out if Administrative Tribunals are empowered to take action against contemnors. Why is this an issue? Is the law of contempt different for administrative tribunals? The Supreme Court has had an opportunity to address this point in T.Sudhakar Prasad v. Govt. Of AP & Ors (2000).

The issue before the Apex Court in this judgment was as follows (let’s take a syllogistic approach):

A. Default Position: Only High Courts, as Superior Courts and Courts of Record, are empowered to take action in cases of contempt, even when the contempt is of Courts subordinate to it.

B. If A is true and if, according to the judgment in the celebrated decision of L.Chandrakumar v. Union of India (1997), an administrative tribunal is subordinate to a High Court and is hence amenable to the High Court’s jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution...

C. then putting A and B together, would it be right to conclude that an administrative tribunal cannot take action against the contemnor, only the High Court may do so on its behalf?

If the answer to the above question were to be in the affirmative, then Section 17 of the Administrative Tribunal Act, 1985, which empowers tribunals to punish contempt, would be rendered otiose.

To resolve this issue, the Court dwelt on the contempt powers of the Supreme Court and the High Courts.

It observed that these Courts derived their powers from Articles 129 and 215 of the Constitution respectively and such powers could never be taken away from them. Even the provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act were only supplemental in nature, and not derogatory.

The Supreme Court then proceeded to interpret the relevant portions of Chandrakumar. It observed that in Chandrakumar, the SC had interpreted Articles 323A and 323B of the Constitution as ultra vires insofar as they impinged on the basic structure of the Constitution, of which the power of judicial review of the High Courts and Supreme Court was integral.

In other words, those powers of administrative tribunals which were specifically conferred under Article 323A and consequently the Administrative Tribunals Act, which did not run contrary to the Constitution’s basic structure, would remain unaffected by the dicta in Chandrakumar.

Therefore, the power to punish contempt under Section 17 of the Administrative Tribunals Act, which flowed by Article 323A(b), remained unaffected by the decision in Chandrakumar

The Court arrived at this this conclusion through another path as well- according to the Court, the other reason that Section 17 was explicitly included in the Administrative Tribunals Act was that, by default the power of contempt was available only to Courts of record. Since an exception was being made with respect to administrative tribunals, such exception had to be express and in no uncertain terms to ensure that this was seen as a clear and unambiguous exception to the default rule.

As to the question, whether there would lie an appeal before the High court from an order of the tribunal in an action for contempt, the Apex Court rightly held that Section 19 of the Contempt of Courts Act would come into play. This means there would be no appeal (or even a writ under Article 226) before the Court from an order of the Tribunal in a contempt action, because the tribunal is substituted for the High Court for the purposes of the Contempt of Courts Act as per Section 17 of the Administrative Tribunal Act.

Therefore, as envisaged in Section 19 of the Contempt of Courts Act, the only remedy would be a special leave petition under Article 136 of the Constitution.

The Court categorically stated that this interpretation too did not run counter to Chandrakumar.