This article is authored by Akash Krishnan, a law student from ICFAI Law School, Hyderabad. It discusses in detail the doctrine of prospective overruling, its origin and development in national and international legal regimes.
It has been published by Rachit Garg.
The doctrine of prospective overruling was first recognised in America in the early 1900s when the legal jurisprudence in the country shifted from the age-old Blackstonian theory. The doctrine slowly developed in America and was soon accepted by English jurists and English Courts. It was recognised and adopted in India for the first time by the Supreme Court in the case of I.C Golaknath vs. the State of Punjab (1967).
The Supreme Court in this case laid down multiple guidelines for using the doctrine. These guidelines were followed as a precedent and the doctrine was applied by the Supreme Court multiple times over the years. Let us now discuss the evolution of this doctrine over time.
American jurisprudence on the doctrine of prospective overruling
The doctrine of prospective overruling finds its roots in American jurisprudence. But before this doctrine was applied and followed, the American judicial system followed the Blackstonian theory. According to this theory, Courts did not have the power to create new laws but could only follow, interpret and expound the existing laws. But several American jurists were against this theory and this opposition paved the way for the adoption of the doctrine of prospective overruling.
American jurist George F. Canfield has stated that it is the duty of a court to recognise and propound a new rule if the court deems that the old rule has become unsound or has lost its effectiveness in the modern-day legal regime.
The Supreme Court of the USA in Great Northern Railway vs. Sunburst Oil and Refinery Co. (1932) adopted the doctrine of prospective overruling for the first time. The Court observed that while overruling a previous law/decision, the Court is empowered to give it’s ruling a prospective effect. The reasoning given by the Court for adopting this doctrine is that no party should suffer because of the change in law or stance of the Court, i.e., if a ruling is being given retrospective effect, all the transactions that occurred under the old law would be deemed to be void. Therefore, to avoid such an effect on the earlier transactions, it is necessary that the rulings of a court should be given prospective effect.
In Chicot County Drainage District vs. Baxter State Bank (1940), the USA Court at Hughes held that the actions/transactions that had taken place under legislation that had been declared unconstitutional should not be affected by such unconstitutionality. The transactions in the past cannot be affected or erased by pronouncing a new judicial ruling in that regard.
In Griffin vs. Illinois (1956), the Supreme Court of America held that the court is not bound to follow the “either/or” approach while determining the constitutional validity of a case. They can opt to approach the case in a manner they deem fit and pronounce a ruling with a prospective effect.
English jurisprudence on the doctrine of prospective overruling
The Blackstonian theory that was followed in England was criticised by English jurists like Bentham and Austin. Austin stated that the mere ideology that a law is not made by a court and just miraculously exists is nothing but fictional. Law has been and will be in the future made by the judges in Courts of law from time to time.
The House of Lords in Practice Statement (Judicial Precedent) (1966) observed that the Blackstonian theory does not pass the test of time and the Courts are empowered to modify and depart from existing laws and decisions if it deems fit to do so. In Milangas vs. George Textiles Limited (1976), the House of Lords while dealing with a claim for liquidated damages held that the application of the doctrine of prospective overruling would not affect any past transactions but will only affect the future transactions from the date of the judgement.
Indian jurisprudence on the doctrine of prospective overruling
I.C Golaknath v. the State of Punjab
When it comes to adopting the doctrine of prospective overruling in India, the Supreme Court recognised and adopted this doctrine for the first time in this case. Let us now discuss this case in detail:
Both the petitioners and their families were the owners of over 500 acres of land situated in Jalandhar, Punjab. However, after the enactment of the Punjab Security of Land Tenures Act 1953, the Government issued a notice to them stating that they could only keep possession of 30 acres of land each and had to give up the rest of the land. The land that was to be given up would be deemed as surplus land. Due to this, the constitutional validity of the enactment was challenged on the grounds of violations of the following fundamental rights:
- Right to acquire and hold property: Article 19(1)(f) of the Constitution.
- Right to equality and equal protection before the law: Article 14 of the Constitution.
- Right to practice any profession: Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.
Whether the Parliament has the power to legislate upon and amend the fundamental rights guaranteed to the citizens of India under the Constitution?
Objections raised against the doctrine of prospective overruling
- There is no evidence regarding the application of the doctrine of prospective overruling on decisions regarding amendments of ordinary laws. Only decisions regarding constitutional law amendments can be subject to this doctrine.
- Indian jurisprudence follows a precedent-based system. It would not be advisable to shift from this approach and adopt an international doctrine.
- According to Article 13 of the Constitution, any law that is in violation of fundamental rights would be deemed to be void to the extent of the violation. In Deep Chand vs. State of Uttar Pradesh (1959), the Supreme Court held that any law which violates the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution is a still-born law. Thus, any law that has been declared unconstitutional should be deemed void from the moment of its enactment and therefore the doctrine of prospective overruling would be against the guideline set under Article 13 of the Constitution.
Observations regarding the application of the doctrine of prospective overruling
- The Supreme Court initially propounded three essential conditions that were necessary for invoking the doctrine of prospective overruling. The conditions have been enumerated below:
- The doctrine of prospective overruling can be invoked only in cases that arise regarding the interpretation of the Constitution.
- The doctrine of prospective overruling can be applied only by the Supreme Court.
- The Court may modify the aspects of prospective application of its ruling in accordance with the justice of the cause or matter before it.
- By applying the aforesaid conditions, the Court came to a conclusion that if it follows the principle of retrospective overruling, it would create chaos and will affect several transactions that were carried on under the old regime. Thus, the doctrine of prospective overruling will be applicable in the present case.
- The Constitutional amendments already in place would not be affected by the decision of the Court. Only future amendments would have to follow the ratio laid down by the Court in this case.
Waman Rao v. Union of India (1981)
In this case, the Maharashtra Agricultural Lands (Ceiling on Holdings) Act, 1961 imposed certain ceilings on agricultural holdings of the people in the state of Maharashtra. The Act was placed in the IX Schedule of the Constitution. Over 2000 petitions were filed challenging the validity of the Act in the Bombay High Court. The High Court held that the provisions of the Act cannot be challenged on the ground that the Act was included in the IX Schedule of the Constitution. Thus, an appeal was preferred to the Supreme Court.
- The inclusion of an Act in the IX schedule does not bar the Court from applying the doctrine of prospective overruling.
- Although the Act is being declared unconstitutional, the transactions under the Act would remain valid due to the application of the doctrine of prospective overruling.
Orissa Cement Limited v. State of Orissa (1991)
In this case, the Applicant-Assessee has challenged before the Supreme Court the constitutional validity of the levy of a ‘cess’, based on the royalty derived from mining lands, by the States of Bihar, Orissa & Madhya Pradesh, being beyond the legislative competence of the State legislatures. Further, a claim for a refund of the cess/royalties that was collected was made. The laws in question were the Orissa Cess Act 1962 and the Rules thereunder, the Bengal Cess Act 1880, the Madhya Pradesh Upkar Adhiniyam 1981, Madhya Pradesh Karadhan Adhiniyam 1982, and the Madhya Pradesh Mineral Areas Development Cess Rules, 1982.
- In India Cement Ltd. vs. The State of Tamil Nadu (1989), the Supreme Court had held that if an Act is declared to be unconstitutional and certain amounts were collected under the provisions of the said Act prior to it being declared unconstitutional, the State is not liable to refund the same.
- The doctrine of prospective overruling expressly indicates that the ruling of the court should be given a prospective effect and not a retrospective effect.
- Since the enactment has been declared unconstitutional, only the cess/royalties that would be levied from the date of this order is subject to refund. The cess/royalties levied by the State prior to the Act being declared unconstitutional is not subject to refund.
Union of India v. Mohammad Ramzan Khan (1990)
In this case, Article 311 of the Constitution was amended by the 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act. Under this new amendment, a delinquent had lost his right to obtain a copy of the enquiry report of his disciplinary proceedings, i.e., now, a delinquent could be dismissed without showing any cause for dismissal. The amendment was challenged on the grounds of violation of Article 14 and the violations of principles of natural justice.
- Every person has the right to know the reason for which the person has been suspended/fired from an assigned post. Passing an order without reason is a violation of the principles of natural justice.
- Therefore, the amendment is unconstitutional and the orders that were issued under this amendment would be deemed void and fresh proceedings will have to be initiated in a proper manner.
- The Court while applying the doctrine of prospective overruling held that from the date of this judgement, no order can be issued by any body without providing reasons for the punishment that has been provided under the order.
Managing Director, ECIL, Hyderabad v. Karunakar (1993)
In this case, Article 311 of the Constitution was amended by the 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act. Under this new amendment, a delinquent had lost his right to obtain a copy of the enquiry report of his disciplinary proceedings, i.e., now, a delinquent could be dismissed without showing any cause for dismissal. A Government employee was dismissed from his service without giving appropriate reasons for such dismissal and the enquiry report was not provided to him either. This dismissal was challenged on the grounds of violation of Article 14 and the violations of principles of natural justice.
- When the doctrine of prospective overruling is applied in a case, the most important factor to be considered is that there should be no injury/disparity caused to the previous transactions that occurred under the old regime.
- The doctrine of prospective overruling clearly means that the decision of the court will only have a prospective operation.
- Since the government employee in the present case was dismissed before the ruling of the Court in the case of Union of India vs. Mohammad Ramzan Khan, the dismissal is not affected by the ruling of that case due to its prospective operation.
- However, the employee can challenge the order on the grounds of violation of principles of natural justice and demand fresh proceedings in the matter.
Harsh Dhingra v. the State of Haryana (2001)
In this case, Section 30 of the Haryana Development Authority Act, 1988 was challenged in the present case. Absolute power was bestowed on the Chief Minister of Haryana to allow plots at his own discretion. This discretion was to be free from any form of judicial scrutiny. This law was challenged on the ground of arbitrariness and violation of Article 14 of the Constitution.
- By applying the doctrine of prospective overruling, the Court is attempting to avoid reopening of settled issues and to prevent multiplicity of proceedings. It also helps to avoid uncertainty and avoidable litigation.
- However, it is pertinent to note that all actions/transactions that take place prior to the declaration of law as unconstitutional are validated under this doctrine in the larger public interest.
- Subordinate courts are duty-bound to apply the prospective operation of law as set by the superior courts in any matter that is placed at their disposal in the future.
- Prospective overruling is not only a part of constitutional policy but also an extended facet of stare decisis and not judicial legislation.
The doctrine of prospective overruling simply means that the decision of a Court will have a prospective operation and will not affect any transactions that occurred before the judgement has been passed by the Court. The essential conditions that have to be followed while applying this doctrine are that firstly, it should be invoked only in cases that arise regarding the interpretation of the Constitution. Secondly, it should be applied only by the Supreme Court and lastly, the Court may modify the aspects of prospective application of its ruling in accordance with the justice of the cause or matter before it.
This doctrine is an important part of the jurisprudence in India and it ensures that public interest is not affected by invalidating past transactions under laws that have been declared unconstitutional.
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