11 Jan 2011

Doctrine of "Stare Decisis": The concept understood

In this post we cover another legal concept, the doctrine of stare decisis as applicable to India, a tradition of common law. Literally it implies to be bound by one's own decision i.e. to stand by what has been decided earlier. The doctrine, thus allows summary repulsion of claims upon which the Court has already decided earlier. The concept generally applies to the highest court of a country like the House of Lords of U.K. (as it was earlier).

The Supreme Court in its recent decision [Shanker Raju v. Union of India] explained this concept inter alia as under;
9) It is a settled principle of law that a judgment, which has held the field for a long time, should not be unsettled. The doctrine of stare decisis is expressed in the maxim “stare decisis et non quieta movere”, which means “to stand by decisions and not to disturb what is settled.” Lord Coke aptly described this in his classic English version as “those things which have been so often adjudged ought to rest in peace.” 
The underlying logic of this doctrine is to maintain consistency and avoid uncertainty. The guiding philosophy is that a view which has held the field for a long time should not be disturbed only because another view is possible. This has been aptly pointed out by Chandrachud, C.J. in Waman Rao v. Union of India, (1981) 2 SCC 362 at pg. 392 thus:
“40. … for the application of the rule of stare decisis, it is not necessary that the earlier decision or decisions of longstanding should have considered and either accepted or rejected the particular argument which is advanced in the case on hand. Were it so, the previous decisions could more easily be treated as binding by applying the law of precedent and it will be unnecessary to take resort to the principle of stare decisis. It is, therefore, sufficient for invoking the rule of stare decisis that a certain decision was arrived at on a question which arose or was argued, no matter on what reason the decision rests or what is the basis of the decision. In other words, for the purpose of applying the rule of stare decisis, it is unnecessary to enquire or determine as to what was the rationale of the earlier decision which is said to operate as stare decisis.”
10) In Manganese Ore (India) Ltd. v. Regional Asstt. CST, (1976) 4 SCC 124, at page 127, it was opined that the doctrine of stare decisis is a very valuable principle of precedent which cannot be departed from unless there are extraordinary or special reasons to do so.
11) In Ganga Sugar Corpn. v. State of U.P., (1980) 1 SCC 223 at page 233, this Court cautioned that, “the Judgments of this Court are decisional between litigants but declaratory for the nation.” This Court further observed:
“28. … Enlightened litigative policy in the country must accept as final the pronouncements of this Court… unless the subject be of such fundamental importance to national life or the reasoning is so plainly erroneous in the light of later thought that it is wiser to be ultimately right rather than to be consistently wrong. Stare decisis is not a ritual of convenience but a rule with limited exceptions.”
12) In Union of India v. Raghubir Singh, (1989) 2 SCC 754, at page 766, this Court has enunciated the importance of doctrine of binding precedent in the development of jurisprudence of law: 
“8. Taking note of the hierarchical character of the judicial system in India, it is of paramount importance that the law declared by this Court should be certain, clear and consistent. It is commonly known that most decisions of the courts are of significance not merely because they constitute an adjudication on the rights of the parties and resolve the dispute between them, but also because in doing so they embody a declaration of law operating as a binding principle in future cases. In this latter aspect lies their particular value in developing the jurisprudence of the law.
9. The doctrine of binding precedent has the merit of promoting a certainty and consistency in judicial decisions, and enables an organic development of the law, besides providing assurance to the individual as to the consequence of transactions forming part of his daily affairs. And, therefore, the need for a clear and consistent enunciation of legal principle in the decisions of a court.”
13) In Krishena Kumar v. Union of India, (1990) 4 SCC 207, at page 233, this Court has explained the meaning and importance of sparing application of the doctrine of Stare Decisis:
“33. Stare decisis et non quieta movere. To adhere to precedent and not to unsettle things which are settled. But it applies to litigated facts and necessarily decided questions. Apart from Article 141 of the Constitution of India, the policy of courts is to stand by precedent and not to disturb settled point. When court has once laid down a principle of law as applicable to certain state of facts, it will adhere to that principle, and apply it to all future cases where facts are substantially the same. A deliberate and solemn decision of court made after argument on question of law fairly arising in the case, and necessary to its determination, is an authority, or binding precedent in the same court, or in other courts of equal or lower rank in subsequent cases where the very point is again in controversy unless there are occasions when departure is rendered necessary to vindicate plain, obvious principles of law and remedy continued injustice. It should be invariably applied and should not ordinarily be departed from where decision is of long standing and rights have been acquired under it, unless considerations of public policy demand it.”
14) In Union of India & Anr. v. Paras Laminates (P) Ltd, (1990) 4 SCC 453 at pg. 457, this Court observed as under :-
“9. It is true that a bench of two members must not lightly disregard the decision of another bench of the same Tribunal on an identical question. This is particularly true when the earlier decision is rendered by a larger bench. The rationale of this rule is the need for continuity, certainty and predictability in the administration of justice. Persons affected by decisions of tribunals or courts have a right to expect that those exercising judicial functions will follow the reason or ground of the judicial decision in the earlier cases on identical matters”.
It has been opined that in the absence of a strict rule of precedent, litigants would take every case to the highest court, in spite of a ruling to the contrary, in the hope that the decision may be overruled.
15) In Hari Singh v. State of Haryana, (1993) 3 SCC 114, at page 120, this Court stated the importance of consistent opinions in achieving harmony in Judicial System:
“10. It is true that in the system of justice which is being administered by the courts, one of the basic principles which has to be kept in view, is that courts of coordinate jurisdiction, should have consistent opinions in respect of an identical set of facts or on a question of law. If courts express different opinions on the identical sets of facts or question of law while exercising the same jurisdiction, then instead of achieving harmony in the judicial system, it will lead to judicial anarchy.” 
16) In Tiverton Estates Ltd. v. Wearwell Ltd., (1975) Ch 146 at page 371, Sorman L. J., while not agreeing with the view of Lord Denning, M.R. about desirability of not accepting previous decisions, said as follows:
“I decline to accept his lead only because I think it damaging to the law to the long term—though it would undoubtedly do justice in the present case. To some it will appear that justice is being denied by a timid, conservative adherence to judicial precedent. They would be wrong. Consistency is necessary to certainty—one of great objectives of law.”
17) The second observation we wish to make is, the doctrine of binding precedent has the merit of promoting certainty and consistency in judicial decisions. The pronouncement of law by a larger Bench of the this Court is binding on a Division Bench of this court, especially where the particular determination by this Court not only disposes of the case, but also decides a principle of law. We further add that it would be inappropriate to reagitate the very issue or a particular provision, which this Court had already considered and upheld.

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