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By Punit Agarwwal, Final Year Student at Jindal Global Law School | Nov 30, 2020

In these unfortunate times of the Coronavirus pandemic, several state governments have passed notifications to increase workers’ working hours to twelve hours a day [1]. The Labour Ministry is all set to pass rules like the Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSH & WC) by January 2021 [2], which allow the extension of working hours of a worker to twelve hours a day, i.e., 72 hours a week. This allowance in the extension of working hours has increased the employers’ scope of exploitation. The employers might exploit the workers to increase productivity to fight the recession or make up for the losses made in the lockdown period. There might be instances where the employer might make some alterations to the weekly holidays, therefore the judgment John Douglas Keith Brown v State of West Bengal read with section 2, 52 and 92 of the Factories Act, 1948 becomes very important. In the year 1964, Justice J.R. Mudholkar, Supreme Court of India, delivered this judgment. The judgment ensures that both the occupier and the manager are held accountable if they fail to comply with Section 52 of the Act. Section 52 indicates a prohibition from requiring or allowing an adult worker to work in a factory on the first day of the week. The prohibition is, however, lifted if the steps under clauses (a) and (b) of that section are taken. The section also prohibits any substitution that results in any worker working for more than ten days consecutively without  weekly holidays.


Mr. John Douglas Keith, the appellant, was the Managing Director of Jardine Henderson Ltd., who were the managing agents of the Howrah Mills Company. He was by virtue of his position in the company termed as ‘occupiers’ of the Mill as per the definition under section 2(n) of the Act. On the other hand, Mr. J.P. Bell was the manager of the Mill.

Both John and J.P. Bell were charged with the penalty under section 92 of the Factories Act for contravening the provisions under section 52. However, while the trial was pending in the Sub-Divisional Magistrate’s court, the manager, Mr. Bell, was allowed to go to England. The trial was continued only against the appellant alone. The appellant was then convicted of the offense and sentenced to a fine by the Sub-Divisional Magistrate. The appellant then appealed—both the Sessions Court and the High Court dismissed his appeals. However, the High Court allowed him to appeal to the Supreme Court, deeming the case fit for appeal to the Supreme Court.


The appellant made all his arguments by relying on the State Govt. of Madhya Pradesh vs. Maganbhai Dasaibhai case.

Firstly, he argued that the High Court at Nagpur in the Maganbhai case held that –

“An occupier will be liable for a contravention of any of the provisions of the Act or rules if the responsibility for observing the provisions has not been imposed on some other person. If a specific duty is laid on a particular person, the responsibility for the breach will be his. [3]”

Therefore, on the same lines, the appellant stated that Section 52(1)(b) imposes a duty on the manager to give notice to the Office of the Inspector in case a change in weekly holidays is proposed from the first day of the week to any other substituted day. Therefore, the manager’s omission to provide such notice cannot render the occupier liable for penalty under section 92, as the duty was not laid on him by the section.

Secondly, the appellant furthered his above argument by stating that the occupier cannot be held liable for penalty unless shown with evidence that the occupier had any connivance on his part for the manager’s breach or if the occupier had the mens rea to contravene the provision. The Maganbhai case emphasized the necessity of mens rea under section 92 because it is a penal statute, and “Penal statutes have to be strictly construed. It is a cardinal principle of criminal law that unless the statute, either clearly or by necessary implication, rules out ‘mens rea’ as a constituent part of a crime, an accused should not be found guilty of an offense against the criminal law unless he has got a guilty mind. [4]”. Therefore, he stated that because there was no evidence to prove that he was aware of the manager’s omission, his sentence and conviction should be quashed by the court.


The court, on perusal of clause (b) of section 52(1), held that the requirement to give and display the notice under the clause is only to secure an exemption from the prohibition which the opening part of section 52(1) puts. This requirement should not be equated to the other provisions that put a specific duty on the manager. The clause and the prohibition under the section should be construed in a general sense and should not be confined to the manager only. Thus, meaning that in contravention of section 52(1), both the occupier and the manager will be held liable to the penalties prescribed under the section. Since section 52 does not specify specific penalties under it, section 92 will be applicable.

Secondly, the court also highlighted the evidence to prove that the occupier (appellant) had the knowledge of a violation of section 52(1) and that he did not take any steps to stop the same. The court found two letters sent to the Chief Inspector of Factories by the manager, the copies of both the letters were also sent to the M/s Jardine Henderson Ltd. The fact that the appellant was the Managing Director of M/s Jardine Henderson Ltd., it is deemed that the appellant knew of what was going on and what the manager proposed to do. However, even then, the appellant did not bother to restrain the manager from putting the new schedule in operation without permission. This schedule was itself in violation of the opening line of section 52 since the manager proposed to schedule the working hours on Sundays. The schedule also did not specifically mention the names of the respective workers to work in that shift. Therefore, the court also clarified that section 52 does not grant general permission to alter the weekly holidays for all workmen; instead, it only allows an exception for some workmen.

Therefore, the appellant’s arguments were not accepted, and the Supreme Court held that both the manager and the appellant were liable for the contravention of section 52 as the occupier had the full knowledge of the conduct of the manager. Thus, the appeal was dismissed.


Section 52 is an essential part of the Factories Act, 1948. It furthers its objective and purpose by preventing the workers from being exploited and subjected to inhuman treatment in terms of working schedule and hours. It ensures that the workers are given appropriate intervals between working days, like prohibiting a worker’s substitution if he has not been given weekly holidays after working for ten days consecutively. This judgment demonstrates how the Supreme Court also furthers this objective of the legislation by holding both the occupier and the manager liable to penalty under section 92 for any violations of section 52. It makes sure that the occupier does not escape his accountability by claiming that he lacked knowledge of his manager’s conduct with evidence proving otherwise. Thus, ensuring the compliance of the provisions of this Act by both the parties.

The Supreme Court has also, by dismissing the appeal, upheld the Sub-Divisional Magistrate’s decision to hold only the ‘occupier’ of the factory liable. Thus, practically approving the continuation of the prosecution in the absence of the Manager and laying down the principle that under section 92, it is not necessary to have the prosecution proceed or filed against both the manager and the occupier when invoking section 92. The State of Maharashtra vs. V.S. Raghavan case discusses the same principle. The Bombay High Court, in this case, cited the present case while arriving at its decision to hold that “If the prosecution feels that the responsibility lies for the breach only one the Manager, the prosecution u/s 92 can proceed only against the Manager and it cannot be said that even in such event the occupier should also be made accused…merely because if the provisions of Section 92 are construed to mean that a joint prosecution is contemplated in each and every case and neither the occupier nor the Manager can singly be prosecuted. The principle of vicarious liability is negatived. [5]” Therefore, the current position of law is that an occupier will be held liable under section 92 for contravening section 52 if there is evidence that proves that he knew of the contravention. Otherwise, the prosecution can also file individual prosecutions under section 92. Also, section 52 does not grant a general permission to alter the weekly holidays for all workmen; instead, it only allows an exception for some workmen.



[3] State Govt.,Madhya Pradesh vs. Maganbhai Dasaibhai (25.04.1952 – NAGPUR) : MANU/NA/0165/1952

[4] State Govt.,Madhya Pradesh vs. Maganbhai Dasaibhai (25.04.1952 – NAGPUR) : MANU/NA/0165/1952

[5] State of Maharashtra vs. V.S. Raghavan (17.11.1988 – BOMHC) MANU/MH/0297/1988

John Douglas Keith Brown v State of West Bengal MANU/SC/0216/1964