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This article is written by Ms. Shivani Agarwal from the Institute of Law, Nirma University. This is a comprehensive article that provides an insight of the principles of natural justice vis-a-vis the Indian Constitution and exceptions thereto.

Introduction

Natural justice rules evolved with the advancement of human civilization. It is neither the Constitution nor humanity’s creation. Its origins can be traced back to human history. To defend himself against the excess of organized powers, man has always turned to someone who he did not make, and that someone could only be God and his laws, i.e., Divine law or Natural law, to which all temporal laws and actions must adhere. Natural law refers to the “higher law of nature” or ‘natural law,’ which indicates fairness, reason, equity, and equality. Natural justice principles are unwritten laws.

The term “natural justice” is impossible to define precisely and scientifically. They are essentially common sense justice that is ingrained in the human conscience. They are founded on universal concepts and values found in nature. Both ‘natural justice’ and ‘legal justice’ are components of ‘justices .’ When legal justice fails to fulfill this goal, natural justice must intervene. Natural justice has a long and illustrious history that dates back to ancient times. The Greeks believed that “no man should be left unheard.” It was first used in the ‘Garden of Eden,’ where Adam was given the opportunity to be heard before being punished. When it comes to the natural justice principle, there are primarily two principles that must be followed:

  1. Nemo Judex In Causa Sua: No one may be a judge in his or her own case, or the deciding authority must be unbiased and impartial.
  2. Audi Alteram Partem: To hear the other side, or both sides, or that no man should be condemned without being heard, or that the judging authority must be fair.

The Principles of Natural Justice are limited to judicial processes and did not apply to administrative processes, but in Ridge vs. Baldwin, it was stated that the principles of natural justice apply to “almost the entire range of administrative authorities.”

It is now widely established that the principles of natural justice provide necessary implications to the enacted laws, and as a result, administrative authorities performing public functions are often expected to follow “fair procedure.” A person may have a legitimate expectation of a fair hearing or procedural fairness/treatment, but if their observance results in injustice, they may be discarded because principles of natural justice are only used in the pursuit of justice. There are a number of well-established limitations or exceptions to the principles of natural justice, and the occurrence of such situations prevents the individual from benefiting from them.

Since principles of natural justice are ultimately weighed in the balance of fairness, courts have been cautious in applying them to situations where they would cause more injustice than justice. For example, where a person is denied the right to a fair hearing, it is more likely a case of bad decision than of true exception of the principles of natural justice, then in such cases principles of natural justice can be disregarded and exception cannot be applied. The use of natural justice principles can be openly or impliedly prohibited, subject to the requirements of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. However, in India, common law exceptions are sought in addition to constitutional lim.

Constitutional provisions relating to the ‘Principles of Natural Justice’

Natural Justice is not mentioned in the Indian Constitution at all. However, the body of the Indian Constitution was ingeniously woven with a golden thread of natural justice. The Preamble of the Constitution not only ensures fairness in people’s social and economic activities, but it also protects individual liberty from arbitrary action, which is the base for the principles of natural justice. Apart from the preamble, Article 14 guarantees citizens of India equality before the law and equal protection of the law. Article 14 strikes at the heart of arbitrariness, while Article 21 ensures the right to life and liberty, which is the cornerstone of protecting liberty and ensuring a life with dignity. Article 22 ensures that the arrested individual receives a fair hearing and natural justice. Directive principles of state policy, in particular, Article 39-A look after people who are socially, economically, or politically backward, and to achieve this goal, this part provides free legal aid to indigent or disabled people, and Article 311 of the Constitution provides constitutional protection to civil servants. Furthermore, Articles 32, 226, and 136 give constitutional remedies in circumstances when any of the fundamental rights, including principles of natural justice, are violated. 

Article 14

As we all know, this Article ensures equality before the law and equal protection of the law. It outlaws discrimination and discriminatory laws as well as an administrative action. Article 14 is currently proven to be a stronghold against any state action that is arbitrary or discriminatory. As a result of the judicial pronouncements, the horizons of equality as contained in the Article have been broadening, and it has now taken on a very activist significance.

It established a fundamental principle that all people in similar situations should be treated equally in terms of privileges and liabilities. In some circumstances, the Courts required that the person adversely affected by administrative action be granted the right to be heard before the administrative body passes an order against him in order to prevent arbitrary action on the part of the administration. Such a procedural safeguard is thought to reduce the chances of the administrative authority issuing a random order. As a result, the Supreme Court has derived from Article 14 the idea that natural justice is an essential aspect of the administrative process. The right to a hearing is guaranteed under Article 14 to anybody who is affected by an administrative order.

Article 22

This Article protects arrested people from arrest and detention in certain circumstances, and it incorporates a valuable aspect of natural justice within its scope. The underlying objective of the provision is to communicate the grounds of arrest to the arrested person. After knowing about the ground of the arrest, the detainee can apply for bail to the appropriate court or move for the writ of habeas corpus in the High Court. Information about the reasons for detention gives detainees a sufficient opportunity to prepare a case; however, such reasons must be precise, clear, and unambiguous; if the grounds are not completely disclosed to the accused, it amounts to a denial of a “fair hearing” and a violation of natural justice. 

Article 22(1), according to the Supreme Court, represents a rule that has always been viewed as vital and fundamental for defending personal liberty in all legal systems where the Rule of Law prevails.

Article 32 and 226

Constitutional remedies for violation of fundamental rights and other legal rights are provided in Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution, respectively. These remedies can be exercised by issuing relevant writs, directions, and orders. Habeas Corpus, Mandamus, prohibition, quo-warranto, and certiorari are types of writs. The Writ of Habeas Corpus is used to prevent illegal and unlawful detention, and Mandamus is used to compel a public officer to fulfill his legal obligations. Whereas, writs of Prohibition and Certiorari are used to prevent judicial and quasi-judicial bodies from acting without jurisdiction, in excess of jurisdiction, or where there is a clear error of law on the face of the record, a violation of a fundamental right, or a violation of Natural Justice Principles. However, it is a recent development that a writ of Certiorari can be used against administrative authorities performing adjudicatory functions.

Article 32 and 226 are extraordinary weapons used by the Supreme Court and High Courts respectively to prevent the violation of the principles of natural justice by any of the lower courts or tribunals (as the case maybe).

Article 311

Persons employed in civil capacities under the Union or a State are subject to dismissal, removal, or reduction in rank under Article 311. Despite the fact that Article 310 of the Constitution adapts the “doctrine of pleasure,” Article 311 of the Constitution provides enough restrictions against abuse of such power. According to Article 311 (1), no individual who is a member of the Union’s civil service or a State’s all-India service or holds a civil post under the Union or a State may be dismissed or removed by an authority subordinate to the one by which he was appointed. Article 311(2) states that no such person shall be dismissed, removed, or reduced in rank unless and until an inquiry has been made and he has been informed about the charges against him and has been given a reasonable opportunity to be heard on those charges. The term “reasonable opportunity of being heard” encompasses all aspects of the principles of natural justice. As a result, no civil servant can be dismissed, removed, or demoted without being given a reasonable opportunity of being heard. 

Article 311 mandates the authority, which has to take a final decision and can impose a penalty, to offer an opportunity to the officer charged of misconduct to file representation, before the disciplinary authority records its findings on charges framed against the officer. This is because, before imposing the penalty, the employer is required to conduct a thorough inquiry in line with the provisions of the standing orders, if any, and natural justice principles. The inquiry should not be only a formality.

Exceptions to the principles of Natural Justice

Doctrine of necessity

The doctrine of necessity is an exception to the general rule of ‘Bias.’ The law allows certain acts to be done as a matter of necessity that it would not qualify based on judicial propriety otherwise. The doctrine of necessity makes it necessary for the authority to decide. It can be used in circumstances of bias where no one has the power to make a decision. If the doctrine of necessity is not fully applied in some inevitable situations, it will obstruct the administration of justice and, in turn, will assist the defaulting side. If the alternative is between allowing a biased person to act or suppressing action entirely, the former must be chosen because it is the only way to foster decision-making. When the bias is apparent, but the same person who is likely to be biased has to decide due to statutory requirements or the exclusiveness of competent authority to make a decision, the Courts allow that person to make the decision.

The doctrine of absolute necessity

The doctrine of “absolute necessity” is also used as an exception to “Bias” when it is absolutely necessary to decide a case of Bias and there is no other option. The Supreme Court was requested in the Election Commission of India vs. Dr. Subramaniam Swamy to consider whether the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) TN Seshan, who was allegedly prejudiced in Swamy’s favor due to their long friendship, could participate in the giving of opinion by the EC. The Supreme Court ruled that Seshan should not give an opinion. The Court observed that, given the EC’s multi-member composition and its earlier decision in T.N Seshan vs Union of India, where it was held that the EC’s decisions should be by majority, the CEC could be excused from sitting on the Commission while giving an opinion under Article 192(2) of the Constitution on a matter in which he was held to be biased. If the other two members differed, the CEC might weigh-in, and the majority’s decision would be the EC’s decision. Even if he was biased, he would be required to express his opinion under the doctrine of necessity and not just mere necessity, but an absolute necessity. As a result, the doctrine of bias would not be used. 

The exception to statute provisions

When the parent statute under which an action is being conducted by the administration is silent on its application, the Courts infer natural justice. The failure to specify the right to a hearing in the statutory provision does not imply that the affected individual will not be given a hearing. Natural justice can be overtly or implicitly excluded from a statute. However, because a statute can be challenged under Article 14, it must be justified.

The case of Charan Lal Sahu vs. Union of India (Bhopal Gas Disaster) is a notable example of the application of this exception. The constitutional validity of the Bhopal Gas Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985, which authorized the Central Government to represent all victims in matters of a compensation award, was challenged in this case on the grounds that the Central Government-owned a 22 percent stake in the Union Carbide Company and thus was a joint tortfeasor, resulting in a conflict between the interests of the government and the victims. The court dismissed the claim, stating that even if the argument were valid, the doctrine of necessity would apply to the situation because no other sovereign entity could represent the entire class of gas victims, and hence, the principles of natural justice would not be applied.

Exception in case of public interest

The Supreme Court held in Balco Employees’ Union v. Union of India that the principles of natural justice have no place in making long-term policy decisions in economic affairs. The employees, in this case, had objected to the government’s policy of disinvesting in public-sector undertakings. The court held that the policy decision to disinvest cannot be challenged on the basis of violation of natural justice principles unless it is capricious, arbitrary, illegal, or uninformed and is not contrary to law.

Exception in case of confidentiality

This exception is applicable in cases where public policy demands that specific information in the state’s possession not to be released in the interest of the state’s security. The Supreme Court of India held in Malak Singh v. State of Punjab and Haryana that the police’s surveillance register is a confidential record to which neither the individual whose name is entered in the register nor any other member of the public has access. Furthermore, the Court stated that applying natural justice principles in such a case may negate the whole objective of surveillance, and that there is a strong likelihood that the goals of justice may be defeated rather than served. 

Even the Right to Information Act, 2005 has explicit provisions to restrict certain information from disclosure.

Exception in case of emergency

In India, it is widely accepted that a hearing before condemnation is not necessary by natural justice in cases of extreme urgency, where the public’s interest would be jeopardized by the delay or publicity involved in a hearing, or in exceptional cases of emergency where prompt, preventive or remedial action is required, the requirement of notice and hearing may be obviated.

The Supreme Court decided, in Mohinder Singh Gill vs. CEC, on the issue that whether or not notice and a right to be heard must be given. The counting of the parliamentary elections in Firozhpur Constituency has been ongoing, with some sectors still counting and others having finished. One candidate had a good lead, but before the results were announced, ballot papers and boxes were destroyed in certain areas due to mob violence. Without providing the candidates with any notice or opportunity to be heard, the ECI cancelled the election and ordered a new election under Articles 324 and 329. The Supreme Court dismissed the claim of notice and audi alteram partem. The court ruled that Audi Alteram Partem might be excluded in case of an emergency.

Relevant case laws

The Indian judiciary in various cases has decided upon the principles of natural justice. Some of the following cases can be discussed with reference to principles of natural justice:

Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India

The case was decided by a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court in 1978. This judgment changed the composition of the Indian Constitution and ushered in a new age of “personal liberty” growth. The ruling is a guiding light, providing additional dimensions to the interpretation of Part III of the Indian Constitution’s basic rights. Maneka Gandhi’s passport was granted on June 1, 1976, in accordance with the Passport Act of 1967. The regional passport office (New Delhi) asked her to forfeit her passport on July 2, 1977. The petitioner was also provided no explanation for the External Affairs Ministry‘s arbitrary and unilateral decision, which was based on public interest. The petitioner filed a writ petition with the Supreme Court, claiming that the State’s impoundment of her passport was a clear violation of her right to personal liberty as protected by Article 21.

The primary issue before the Court was whether Articles 14, 19, and 21 are inter-related or are they independent? Another issue was regarding procedures laid down by the Passport Act of 1967.

This decision significantly broadened the reach of Article 21, thereby making India a welfare state, as promised in the preamble. The seven-judge panel reached a unanimous verdict, with the exception of a few instances where some Justices agreed. The court overruled Gopalan’s case, holding that the provisions of Articles 14, 19, and 21 have a unique relationship and that every statute must pass the criteria set out in those articles. The majority in Gopalan previously ruled that these prohibitions are mutually incompatible. As a result, the court determined that these clauses are not mutually exclusive and are not reliant on one another, correcting an earlier error. The court ordered that future courts widen Article 21‘s scope to include all fundamental rights, rather than construing it in a narrower meaning.

Canara bank vs. V.K. Awasthi

In this case, on 6.08.1992, the respondent was served with a show-cause notice and given 15 days to answer. The respondent failed to respond and, as a result, was dismissed from the service on August 17, 1992. The respondent claimed that natural justice standards were not followed, and the High Court agreed, ordering the bank to provide the respondent a meaningful hearing before the disciplinary committee. As a result, the bank appealed to the Supreme Court. The respondent was given a personal hearing before the appellate authority by the bank. The question, in this case, was whether the bank’s provision of a post-decisional hearing to the respondent before the appellate authority complied with Audi alteram partem.

The Supreme Court ruled that a “post-decisional hearing can eliminate the procedural flaw of a pre-decisional hearing.”

As a result, if there is a discrepancy in a case’s procedures, it can be rectified through a post-decisional hearing. Further, the court granted the appeal, ruling that no infringement of the natural justice principle had occurred and that the post-decisional hearing in this case satisfies the objective of the pre-decisional hearing.

Swadeshi Cotton Mills vs. Union of India

The case was decided in 1981. The Government took over Swadeshi Cotton Mills in 1978 under the Industries (Development and Regulation) Act, 1951, on the grounds that the output of products would be dramatically decreased and quick action was necessary to safeguard it. National Textile Corporation Limited was given control of the company for a five-year period. The Act gives the Centre Government the authority to impose instructions in the case of any public limited company that is unable to function efficiently. In response to the government’s directive, the corporation decided to file a writ case in the Delhi High Court. The government’s order was affirmed by the High Court. The appellant then petitioned the Supreme Court for a reversal.

The court overruled the High Court’s judgment, ruling that Section 18AA does not preclude the rule of audi alteram partem at the pre-decisional stage. The court acknowledged the notion of post-decisional hearings, holding that in instances when prior notice or an opportunity to be heard is not feasible, authorities may make required judgments, but they must be followed by a complete remedial hearing. In terms of judicial review of the order, the Apex Court disagreed with the respondent and held that taking prompt action is a question of fact, and therefore the court has the authority to intervene if the administration’s approach is unreasonable since they build their opinions by gathering information. By failing to provide an opportunity to be heard in this case, the government violated the natural justice principle.

Tantia Construction Limited vs Ircon International Ltd.

In a dispute, the arbitrator issued two awards: the original award and the supplementary award. The sums awarded in favour of the petitioner in the original award against claims nos. 6 and 12, were lowered in the supplementary award. The award of ₹1,90,86,595/- in relation to claim no. 6 was reduced to ₹97,85,184/-, and the award of ₹58,08,475/- in relation to claim no. 12 was reduced to ₹54,01,882/. The arbitrator, on the other hand, changed the reasons for granting the aforementioned sums. 

Respondent conceded in his arguments that he was unable to exercise his right to contest the impugned additional award of August 20, 2020. Nonetheless, he claimed that the delay was caused by the COVID pandemic’s participation, and that, in any case, the wait was tolerable because the error for which correction was sought included double payment to the petitioner. 

“It is not feasible for the Court to insert a power of delay condonation into Section 33(1) when none exists,” the Court observed in its observation. The stipulation in Section 33(1) that “unless another period of time has been agreed upon by the parties,” delay cannot be automatically excused by the Arbitral Tribunal in the case of an application under Section 33(1) underscores the fact that delay cannot be automatically excused by the Arbitral Tribunal. Clearly, the legislature’s aim is that the 30-day timeframe stipulated in Section 33(1) is only relaxable if the parties agree to an additional timeframe for submitting the application thereunder. 

The Court found that the Principles of Natural Justice could not be overturned since the afflicted party would have no defense and that the concept of Audi alteram partem is a beneficial and sacrosanct tenet of natural justice.

Conclusion

The major goal of reconciling the inclusion and exclusion of protection of principles of natural justice is to construe individual natural rights to be heard and fair procedure, as well as the public interest, in a harmonious manner. Where justice dictates, a larger public interest should be permitted to take precedence over an individual’s interest. Following the examination of natural justice principles, it can be stated that in administrative processes, courts in both India and England have constructed different exceptions to the necessity of Natural Justice principles and process.

These exceptions, however, are all speculative and not definitive; each exception must be determined permissible or inadmissible based on the facts and circumstances of each situation. Administrative procedures are the principal exceptions to the principles of natural justice in the United Kingdom and India. Courts in both of these nations, particularly in India, have devised several exceptions to the necessity of natural justice principles and processes, taking into consideration diverse variables such as time, place, and the feared risk at the time of decision-making, among others. All of these exclusions must be seen as speculative and not definitive. 

The cases in which natural justice principles have been impliedly excluded suggest that the courts have accepted the doctrine even though the legislature has not said so explicitly, but those cases appear to be so dependent on the specific circumstances that they do not yield a clear general principle. To invoke the exceptions, the authorities’ decision must be based on good faith, and the Courts must find the action of the concerned authorities to be fair and just when adjudicating the post-decision dispute. Every such exception must be adjudged admissible or not only after looking into the facts and circumstances of each case. As a result, excluding natural justice should be avoided unless it is unavoidable because the courts work on the assumption that the legislature wants to follow the principles of natural justice, which do not replace but rather augment the law of the nation.

References


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