Natural law

This article is written by Kashish Khurana pursuing a B.A. LL.B (Hons.), 5th-year, Faculty of Law, Jagran Lake City University. 

This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.​​ 


The quest for the search and deliverance of social justice is believed to be fulfilled only by the principles of natural law. These principles play a greater role in promoting peace, harmony and justice at different periods of time and at different places. The principles of natural law are to protect the individuals and the society against injustice, tyranny and misrule of the offenders of the society as well as monarch state representatives. 

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The origin of both national and international laws lies in the principles of natural law. This is due to its universal nature. These national and international legislations derive their force and authority from these principles of natural law. It governs all the individuals and groups of society and protects their rights and interests. 

These principles have resulted in various domains of legislation. The development of human rights philosophy and socio-economic justice are two of examples of such development. It has been acting as a catalyst to boost various such aspects that serve the purpose of delivering social justice.  

Natural law – meaning and definition 

The term ‘Natural law’ does not hold a specific definition, unlike others. The meaning and definition of the term differ along with different interpretations of jurists. Such interpretations mainly depend upon the development of legal thoughts and systems.  

According to R.W.M Dias, natural law is a law that derives its validity from its own inherent values, differentiated by the living and organic properties, from the law, promulgated in advance by the State or its agencies. Further, Cohen described natural law as a way of looking at things and a humanistic approach of judges and jurists, and not a body of actual enacted or interpreted law enforced by courts. Blackstone further observed the nature of natural law in the following words, ‘The natural law being co-existent with mankind and emanating from God himself, is superior to all other laws. It is binding over all the countries at all times and no man-made law will be valid if it contrary to the law of nature’. 

In totality, the meaning of natural law from the jurisprudence aspect can be understood as the rules and principles evolved from a source that is considered supreme rather than that originated from any political authority. Despite this jurisprudential aspect, different jurists hold a different opinions about the terminology. Some of them believe that natural law has a divine origin; some have the belief of its existence in nature whereas some others believe it to be the product of reason. 

Various sociological jurists and realists with modern ideologies resorted to natural law to resolve the disputes arising between different individuals or groups of society. This recourse has been adopted by these sociological jurists to support and substantiate their ideology. 

Historical perspective of natural law 

The concept of natural law is believed to be laid down by the Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle initially introduced the distinction between nature and law. This relationship of distinction between them led him to the introduction of the natural law. On the other hand, though Plato did not explicitly focus on natural law instead it was his theory that depicted the presence of natural law in them. 

The theory of natural law was further substantiated by Cicero defining it as a concept for the contribution of good deeds to society. These interpretations of the ancient Greek philosophers led to the modern development of natural legal theories like social contract theory. 

Characteristics of natural law 

Despite having various interpretations of the terminology, natural law as a concept has been considered an ideal law source. The following are the characteristics of the natural law: 

  • The main characteristic of natural law is that it follows an empirical method. It means that the principles of natural law follow the idea of reaching to a conclusion after making a proper enquiry or analysis about the subject matter instead of just accepting the conclusion without any substantiation. 
  • Natural law is universal in nature and is based upon moral ideas.  
  • Natural law is dynamic in nature and thus its principal changes according to the needs and requirements of society. 
  • It provides a common base of legal philosophy and ethical jurisprudence based upon justice, morality, reason and ethics. 
  • The principle of ‘due process of law’ and ‘rule of law’ in the USA, England and India respectively are based upon the philosophy of natural law. 
  • The origin of the basic rights of an individual and the development of human rights jurisprudence can be traced back to the philosophy of natural law in the 19th century.  

Critical appraisals of the theory 

The theory of Natural Law is one of a kind and has a greater contribution in the development of a legal system. The legal system has been governed by justice, equity and a good conscience which are known to be the principles of natural law. These laws are inevitable and obligatory, unlike man-made laws that are arbitrary in nature. This theory of natural rights not just provided a favourable climate for reformation but also laid down the basic foundation of human rights. 

Apart from all the merits, the natural law theory also suffers from the following weaknesses: 

  • The aspect of the theory that includes moral obligation is not always in consonance of the needs of society. There should be the existence of some restrictions and differentiation. 
  • The concept of morality is not stagnant; it differs from place to place. It differs as per the conscience of an individual or a group. Therefore, it is inappropriate to say that the natural law theory is universal in nature. 
  • The principles of morality though differ with change in places but remain stagnant with the change in time. On the other hand, the law requires change over a period of time as per the requirements of society. 
  • Disputes that involve legal aspects can be challenged in court but a moral conflict cannot be resolved via judicial scrutiny. Even if it is challenged in a court of law, there are no set of guidelines that govern the concept of the morality of an individual. 

Despite all of these shortcomings, natural law has a greater role in the development of legal system which cannot be denied.  

Principles of natural law under Indian law  

The Indian Legal System is based upon the principles of equity, justice, good conscience and natural justice. The concept of natural law is not the development of the modern judicial system but incorporated within the roots of Indian culture since ancient times. During ancient times, the principle of natural law was in the form of ‘Dharma’. It can be understood as the righteous code of conduct that was prescribed for living an orderly life in society. These principles of natural law that are incorporated within the concept of dharma refer to the duties of a man towards God and all the living creatures of the planet. 

These principles of natural law have been profoundly incorporated within various provisions of the Constitution of India. The framers of the constitution were well-versed in the concept of natural law and understood the importance of its inclusion within the law of the land. The Preamble, fundamental rights, Directive Principles of the State Policy depict the perfect evidence of the application of natural law principles in the Constitution of India. 

The legislative body has also with the change in time appreciated the need of society by including provisions like the right to equal justice and free equal aid, special provisions for the underprivileged sections of society, etc. by the way of amendment. 

Along with the legislative bodies, the judicial institutions of the nations have also through various interpretations explored and included the principles of natural law within the laws of the nation. The case of Kesawananda Bharti v. State of Kerala is a classic example of the judiciary’s attempt to include the principles of natural justice into constitutional jurisprudence. The court in this case adopted the revivalist approach of natural law and observed that the fundamental rights of an individual are not absolute in nature. They have further observed that such rights can be subjected to change only to maintain a just and equal social order in society. 

Further, in the case of Minerva Mills v. Union of India, the apex court gave a new dimension to the principles of natural law by the postulation of new ideals and values in order to strengthen the cause of democracy. The Hon’ble Court developed the concept of individual liberty and social justice based on the principles of natural law in the present case. These decisions were confined to judicial and quasi-judicial decisions initially but with the development of the constitution via judicial interpretations, it was applied in administrative matters as well. The court in the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, applied the principles of natural law within administrative matters for the first time. The court further observed that for the applicability of the doctrine of natural justice, there cannot be any distinction between judicial, quasi-judicial or administrative matters. The aim is just to arrive at a decision that is just, fair and equitable. 

The court has also applied another cardinal principle of natural justice via a maxim i.e. nemo debeit esse judex in propria sua causa which means that no man can be judged in one’s own case at various instances. The apex court has also included access to justice as a part of the natural law theory of jurisprudence in the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar. Moreover, the concept of speedy trial and an investigation was also interpreted by the Hon’ble Court as a part of the natural law in the case of Raghuvir Singh v. State of Bihar

The development of the principles of the natural law and its inclusion by the legislature and judiciary has made it an inseparable part of the legislation, judicial system and all other adjudicating bodies of the nation. These institutions have now been obligated to incorporate the principles of natural justice in their decisions. 


The aim of the incorporation of the natural law theory in the legal system of our country was two-fold. The primary reason for its inclusion is the existence of its traces in the ancient history and culture of India. The principles of natural law are governed by the mythological and ancient concept of ‘Dharma’. The secondary reason for its inclusion is that it is impossible to predict every situation of the future and incorporate legislation for the same. The inclusion of the principles of the natural law in the legislation of the country provides liberty to the judicial, quasi-judicial and administrative tribunals to reach to decisions without being irrational or arbitrary or causing injustice to any individual of the society. 

The principles of natural law are based upon the morality and good conscience of the person. Though the decisions based upon one’s beliefs of morality and good conscience cannot be challenged in a court of law but if such moral beliefs are against the social good, it negates the purpose of the theory.

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