Legal rights and status

This article is written by R Sai Gayatri from Post Graduate College of Law, Osmania University. This article deals extensively with the legal rights and status of a person, an unborn child, and environmental resources. 


We live in a world where we hear the words ‘rights’ and ‘duties’ on a daily basis. Rights are understood as the means that provide certain kinds of privileges to a person and duties are understood as the obligations that a person needs to fulfill. Prima facie, rights and duties look the same for everyone but when we take a closer look, we notice that rights and duties differ at various levels based on the entities they are dealing with. For example, when someone breaches your rights you can approach the court, similarly, you can also make someone do their lawful duty in case of default. This is all fine in the case of human beings but what stand do entities such as an unborn child and environmental resources have in the eyes of law? Can they be given rights, status, and ownership similar to that of a person? Let us know about the legal status of a person, an unborn child, and the environmental resources through this article. 

The legal status of a person

According to Salmond – “A person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights and bound by legal duties.” The term ‘person’ is further classified into two terms i.e, natural person and legal/artificial person.

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Natural person

According to Austin the term ‘person’ refers to a physical or natural person including every being who can be deemed as human. An individual who has his own legal personality is known as a ‘person’ in jurisprudence. Generally, a living human being is considered a natural person. In the olden days, slaves were not allowed to have any privileges that a legal person possesses, rather, by the virtue of their birth, they were only considered as natural persons. Most of the rights and privileges guaranteed by the law with duties and obligations are conferred upon natural persons. A natural person may sue and be sued as per the law. Human rights and fundamental rights are laid down for the benefit of such natural persons.

A natural person has civil rights such as the right to life, the right to vote, the right to privacy, the right to marry, the right to practice a profession, the right to travel, the right to religion, etc. Such rights are meaningful and useful to human beings, hence, they are conferred only upon natural persons. However, few rights such as the right to marry and the right to vote are subject to the age attained by a natural person.

In its broadest sense, a natural person as per jurisprudence is a reasonable and prudent human being. They shall be empowered with all those rights that any person living in that area would possess. A person is considered a natural person when he is born and he ceases to be a natural person after his death. When a person is dead, his body is honoured first, later his property and reputation are considered. A dead person’s property must not be dishonoured. He must not be defamed to harm the reputation of the family or to hurt the feelings of his family members. Natural persons have the most privileges and duties under the law. 

Legal or artificial person in the eyes of the law

As time passed by, the concept of persons under jurisprudence became wider. Natural persons started developing entities for their businesses, for this purpose, certain natural persons were required to act on behalf of such entities. However, a complex situation arose when the entities were to be sued. In order to avoid this problem, the concept of a ‘legal/artificial’ person was introduced.

In jurisprudence, an entity or a person is attributed as a legal person only when he is capable of suing and being sued in a court of law. For example, a legal person can be a company, a State, an idol, a trade union, etc. The law has the power to transform an entity into an artificial person who has legal status and value. This is done by the law to clarify the identity of the one who is suing or being sued. The law acts as the means that provides the capacity to become a legal person for carrying out the procedures in the court with ease. Thus, legal persons are conferred with rights and duties by the law for the purpose of the law.

The main concept to understand here is that all-natural persons are considered legal persons but all legal persons are not natural persons. This can be understood with the help of an example – A person living in Hyderabad will be considered as a legal person and a natural person. However, a business established in Chennai will only be considered as a legal person and not a natural person as it only entails legal existence.  

Legal personality is not just limited to businesses, it also extends to the position of a person. A president or a deputy officer are legal positions given to people. This means that irrespective of who holds such a position, the duties to be carried out will be the same. Hence, a person holding a position may be sued for the actions done by them while being in the course of such a position. Further, the concept of corporate personality is also created by the law. A corporate personality has more rights and duties when compared to other legal persons. 

The legal status of an unborn child

As already mentioned, an individual is considered a natural person from the time of his birth till his death. Such a natural person is capable of bearing rights and duties, thus he has a legal personality. Generally, a natural person before birth and after death does not have a legal personality. So, for a natural person to have rights and duties, he must be alive. However, the law faces an issue when it comes to the case of an unborn child. The subjects such as medicine and theology establish that an unborn child is a living entity.  

As per legal fiction, a child in its mother’s womb is considered as already born. When he is born alive, he will attain legal status. In usual terms, the law only gives attention to living natural persons but in the case of an infant ventre sa mere (a child in its mother’s womb), the law makes an exception. A child in its mother’s womb is capable of acquiring certain rights and inheriting property, but it all depends on whether the child is born alive or not. An unborn child is considered a person during partition. Damages can also be claimed by such an unborn child for the injury sustained while in its mother’s womb.

Indian laws dealing with an unborn child

Indian Penal Code, 1860 

Section 315 – This section of the IPC states that inflicting prenatal injury on a child possessing the capability of being born and where such injury affects it from being born amounts to an offence of child destruction.

Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 

Section 416 – This section of the CrPC states that in case any woman who is sentenced to death is found to be pregnant, an order to postpone the execution must be passed by the High Court, or if it deems it fit, the execution can be reduced to life imprisonment.

Transfer of Property Act, 1882 

Section 13 – This section of the said Act states that a property can be transferred for the benefit of an unborn person through the means of trust.

The Indian Succession Act, 1925 

Section 114 – This section provides for the creation of prior interest before the unborn child is made the owner of the corporeal or incorporeal property. However, no property will be deemed to be vested in the unborn child until he is born alive as per the Act

Under Hindu Law, an unborn child is deemed to be a living person for certain purposes. The rights of an unborn child that is in the womb of its mother are dealt with by Section 20 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956. As per Mitakshara Law, in a Hindu Undivided Family, an unborn child will have an interest in coparcenary property. Under Mohammedan Law a gift in the name of a person who does not exist is void. 

The legal status of environmental resources

Section 2(a) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 states that the term ‘environment’ covers air, water, and land. It also extends to the relationship among and between water, air, land, human beings, flora, fauna and micro-organisms, and property. This definition gives us an idea of how wide the concept of the environment is. Human beings are just a part of the environment. Now, when only human beings have so many rights and privileges, then it is obvious that the environment and its resources must also have certain rights and privileges for protection. There are various Indian laws that provide protection to the environment. Indian Judiciary has played an active role in establishing certain doctrines and principles for safeguarding the environment. Let us understand the legal status of the environment and its resources through the following case laws, principles and doctrines.

Union Carbide Corporation v Union Of India (Bhopal Gas Tragedy Case)

The Supreme Court, in this case, held that an enterprise that carries out any inherently dangerous or hazardous activity and such activity or it’s happening, in the form of a mishap such as the escape of poisonous gas, causes any kind of harm to any person, then the enterprise will be strictly compelled to repay such individuals who are harmed by the accident. Such escapes or risks are not excusable and no exemption will be given. As a result, the Supreme Court established the ‘Doctrine of Absolute Liability’ through this case, where the party at fault will be awarded no exemption at any cost.

Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v Union of India (Bicchri Case)

In this case, the Court opined that once an act that is inherently dangerous or hazardous is carried out, the person carrying out such an activity shall be liable to compensate for loss or harm caused to any other person by virtue of such activity. The Court further opined that liability shall be imposed irrespective of the fact whether the person exercised reasonable care while carrying out such activity or not. This concept of ‘making the loss good’ has been moulded into the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) by the court. The PPP imposes liability on an individual who pollutes or harms the environment to compensate for the harm caused and revive the environment to its original form irrespective of his intention.

Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v Union of India

The Supreme Court in this case laid down the following rules concerning the Precautionary Principle –  

  • The State Governments and local authorities are supposed to foresee and prevent the causes of environmental degradation. They must effectively and regularly conduct checks on the activities that are damaging the environment.
  • Just because there is insufficient scientific knowledge concerning whether certain activity is harming the environment or not, the government must not avoid its inspection process and prevention.
  • It is the duty of the party carrying out an activity to prove that whatever activity is being carried out by him is environmentally friendly. In short, the onus of proof lies on the party carrying out an activity that is suspicious in the eyes of the government or other authorities.

MC Mehta v Kamal Nath

The Doctrine of Public Trust states that environmental resources such as air, water, forests, and sea are of great significance in the eyes of people who as a whole can be called public. Therefore, it would be an unjustifiable act to provide private ownership over such environmental resources. The Court in this case opined that the Public Trust Doctrine is a part of the Indian law. This doctrine helps the States to manage their resources effectively. It bestows power in the hands of the citizens to question the inefficient management of environmental resources. Further, the Public Trust Doctrine is employed by the courts as a mechanism to protect the environment from being degraded.

Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra v State of Uttar Pradesh

In this case, the court stated that the environment is a perpetual asset of mankind and it shall not be exhausted by one generation. This case brought the focus of Indian environmental law upon the concept of sustainable development. Inter-generational equity refers to the right of every generation to be benefitted from environmental resources. Principle 3 of the Rio Declaration mentions that the current generation must not abuse and exploit the non-renewable resources which might deprive future generations of environmental benefits.

Indian Constitution and the environment

The Constitution of India pays high regard to the environment and its resources. Thus, it has played a significant role in protecting the environment in various ways. The Indian Constitution contains exclusive provisions for safeguarding the environment. By the virtue of the 42nd Amendment Act, 1946, the Constitution laid responsibility on the States to protect and develop the environment.

Article 21

This Article states that except according to the process prescribed by the law, no individual will be deprived of his life or personal liberty. The Indian courts interpreted this article in various cases for environmental protection. In Maneka Gandhi v Union of India, the Apex court opined that Article 21 i.e, the right to life also provides the right to a safe environment, this is because, when the environment is unhealthy and unsafe it affects the lives of people as well. 

Article 48-A

This Article comes under the Directive Principle of State Policy. It mentions that the State shall thrive to safeguard and improve the environment, forests, and wildlife of the country. This article expressly imposes a duty on the State to protect the environment from degradation such as pollution by employing different measures.

Article 51A(g)

This Article states that it is the fundamental duty of the citizens of India to safeguard and improve the environment including lakes, rivers, wildlife, and forests. It also imposes the duty to have compassion for other living creatures. In its most basic sense, this article states that when we receive a clean environment, it is our responsibility to protect and maintain it that way.


The legal status of a person, an unborn child, and the environmental resources differ at various levels. A person, either natural or legal, is said to benefit the most from rights and privileges. An unborn child’s rights and privileges depend upon the condition whether he is born alive or not. Environment and its resources are given great importance in the legal world. Various case laws, doctrines, and principles have been pronounced to protect the environment from degradation. 


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