Context: A division bench of the High Court of Karnataka questioned the state government’s decision not to fund the travel of migrant workers if their home states do not deposit funds for train fares.

Background: High courts at the rescue

  •  Earlier, three orders separately passed by different benches of the highest court had declined to give any direction to the Centre to make transport available to migrant workers
    • It also failed to suo motu implead the concerned states that would have enabled the apex court to issue directions to state governments to ensure humanitarian relief.
    • The supreme court’s decision should be analysed in the backdrop of the fact that the Parliament itself in 1979 had enacted a special law regulating the employment and conditions of service of migrant workers.
  • Even during the internal Emergency of June 1975 the HCs of Delhi, Bombay, Madhya Pradesh, Allahabad, Karnataka, and Rajasthan refused to accept that oppressive laws and orders were no longer reviewable by courts. 
    • However, these judgments of six high courts were overruled by the Supreme Court in ADM Jabalpur case  by a Constitution Bench of five judges by a 4:1 majority.
    • But ADM Jabalpur is no longer a good law. It, too, stands overruled by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court (K.S Puttaswamy vs Union of India, 2017)

More on the news :

  • The bench also asked the state government to clarify the legality of its refusal to pay the fares of migrant workers from states like UP, Bihar and Jharkhand.
    • The Centre has laid down rules for reimbursement from destination states
  • It also asked the government whether it wanted to take a stand that a migrant worker who had no income and was not in a position to pay the railway fare would not be allowed to travel home by the Shramik Special trains.

Stand of Karnataka Government 

  • The Karnataka Government had argued that the high court cannot intervene because the Supreme Court, when directly approached under Article 32, had refused to intervene on the issue of migrants walking home due to the lack of transport arrangements.

Tussle between SC and HC : Contempt jurisdiction

  • In May 2017, seven judges of the Supreme Court of India, invoked  its contempt jurisdiction under Article 129 and punished Justice C S Karnan, a sitting judge of the High Court of Madras.
    • It is a one-off decision which is hoped to be never replicated. 
    • The Constitution has not placed high courts as  subordinate to the Supreme Court although decisions of the Supreme Court are binding on the high court. 
    • Further the judgments of the Patna High Court (1981) and of the Supreme Court (1988) held that a  judge of a superior court under the Constitution who is vested with the power to commit for contempt of court cannot himself or herself be committed for criminal contempt as defined in the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

Contempt of Court

Constitutional Background

  • Article 129: Grants Supreme Court the power to punish for contempt of itself.
  • Article 142(2): Enables the Supreme Court to investigate and punish any person for its contempt.
  • Article 215: Grants every High Court the power to punish for contempt of itself.

Contempt under the Indian law

  • In India, the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, divides contempt into civil contempt and criminal contempt.
    • Civil contempt: It is a ‘wilful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other processes of a Court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to the court’.
    • Criminal contempt: It  is 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 which:
      • Scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court.
      • Prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with the due course of any judicial proceeding.
      • Interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.

Punishments for Contempt of Court

  • The Supreme Court: In 1991, ruled that it has the power to punish for contempt not only of itself but also of high courts, subordinate courts and tribunals functioning in the entire country.
  • The High Courts have been given special powers to punish contempt of subordinate courts, as per Section 10 of The Contempt of Courts Act of 1971.

This means only the supreme court and high courts have the power to punish for contempt of court, either with simple imprisonment for a term up to six months or with fine up to 2,000 or with both.

Criticism allowed or not

  • The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, very clearly states that fair criticism of any case which has been heard and decided is not contempt.

Contempt of Courts (Amendment) Act, 2006

  • The statute of 1971 has been amended by the Contempt of Courts (Amendment) Act, 2006 to include the defence of truth under Section 13 of the original legislation.

Section 13: Restrict the powers of the court in that they were not to hold anyone in contempt unless it would substantially interfere with the due process of justice. The amendment further states that the court must permit ‘justification by truth as a valid defence if it is satisfied that it is in public interest and the request for invoking the said defence is bona fide.’



  • The Law Commission of India in its 274th report to the Ministry of Law and Justice has suggested that Articles 129 and 215 of the Constitution vest the Supreme Court and High Courts powers to investigate and punish the contemnor even in absence of any legislation outlining their procedural powers.