2 Jul 2010

Coordinate benches to observe judicial propriety: The law revisited

Do judges wield ultimate power or even are their ability to dictate terms bounded? The question has always stared the common law system which had led to the origin of doctrines such as stare decisis, judicial propriety and conventions observed by the judges. In this post we have an occasion to examine one of such restraints observed by the Supreme Court which in one considered as an essential component of judicial propriety. The law, as now fairly settled, dictates a bench of the Supreme Court to follow a decision delivered by a bench of a larger or even equal strength. In case of inability to agree, the only option available is to refer the matter to the Chief Justice of India requesting to constitute a bench of much larger strength for resolving of conflict. 

The principles were culled out by the then Chief Justice of India, Justice R.C. Lahoti delivering the decision in a Constitutional Bench in Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community v. State of Maharashtra as reported in AIR 2005 SC 752 wherein the following principles have been culled out;

Having carefully considered the submissions made by the learned senior counsel for the parties and having examined the law laid down by the Constitution Benches in the abovesaid decisions, we would like to sum up the legal position in the following terms :-
(1) The law laid down by this Court in a decision delivered by a Bench of larger strength is binding on any subsequent Bench of lesser or co-equal strength. 
(2) A Bench of lesser quorum cannot doubt the correctness of the view of the law taken by a Bench of larger quorum. In case of doubt all that the Bench of lesser quorum can do is to invite the attention of the Chief Justice and request for the matter being placed for hearing before a Bench of larger quorum than the Bench whose decision has come up for consideration. It will be open only for a Bench of coequal strength to express an opinion doubting the correctness of the view taken by the earlier Bench of coequal strength, whereupon the matter may be placed for hearing before a Bench consisting of a quorum larger than the one which pronounced the decision laying down the law the correctness of which is doubted.
(3) The above rules are subject to two exceptions : 
(i) The abovesaid rules do not bind the discretion of the Chief Justice in whom vests the power of framing the roster and who can direct any particular matter to be placed for hearing before any particular Bench of any strength; and
(ii) In spite of the rules laid down hereinabove, if the matter has already come up for hearing before a Bench of larger quorum and that Bench itself feels that the view of the law taken by a Bench of lesser quorum, which view is in doubt, needs correction or reconsideration then by way of exception (and not as a rule) and for reasons it may proceed to hear the case and examine the correctness of the previous decision in question dispensing with the need of a specific reference or the order of Chief Justice constituting the Bench and such listing. Such was the situation in Raghubir Singh & Ors. and Hansoli Devi & Ors.(supra).

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