18 Dec 2016

Legal challenge to Demonetization - Supreme Court Constitution Bench to decide

Recently we had updated our readers with the decision of the Delhi High Court holding that restrictions on cash-withdrawal under demonetization policy were not illegal. A challenge to this decision and other legal points were before the Supreme Court last week. Opining that these were important constitutional issues and were required to be addressed by a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, these challenges have been referred to such bench.

It is noteworthy that Article 145 of the Constitution of India postulates that the "minimum number of Judges who are to sit for the purpose of deciding any case involving a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of this Constitution" shall be five. Accordingly such questions cannot be decided by benches of lesser judge composition. In its order in Vivek Narayan Sharma v. Union of India [Writ Petition (Civil) No. 906/2016, order dated 16.12.2016], a bench of three-judges of the Supreme Court has formulated nine questions which in its view are such substantial questions to be decided by the constitution bench. These are as under;
(i) Whether the notification dated 8th November 2016 is ultra vires Section 26(2) and Sections 7,17,23,24,29 and 42 of the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934;
(ii) Does the notification contravene the provisions of Article 300(A) of the Constitution;
(iii) Assuming that the notification has been validly issued under the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934 whether it is ultra vires Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution;
(iv) Whether the limit on withdrawal of cash from the funds deposited in bank accounts has no basis in law and violates Articles 14,19 and 21;
(v) Whether the implementation of the impugned notification(s) suffers from procedural and/or substantive unreasonableness and thereby violates Articles 14 and 19 and, if so, to what effect?
(vi) In the event that Section 26(2) is held to permit demonetization, does it suffer from excessive delegation of legislative power thereby rendering it ultra vires the Constitution;
(vii) What is the scope of judicial review in matters relating to fiscal and economic policy of the Government; 
(viii) Whether a petition by a political party on the issues raised is maintainable under Article 32; and
(ix) Whether District Co-operative Banks have been discriminated against by excluding them from accepting deposits and exchanging demonetized notes.
These questions have been referred as in view of these three judges these questions are of "general public importance" and there are "far reaching implications which the answers to the questions may have".

Further, noting that the interim order prayed by the parties i.e. to suspend the operation of the demonetization notifications, would amount to interfering with the executive policy of the Government, the Court declined to issue any interim directions. The Court, to arrive at this conclusion, duly noted the submission of the Government that "for the nature of decision taken by the Government - to unearth the black money or unaccounted money and to dry up the terror fund and defeat the attempt of circulation of large scale counterfeit currency, maintaining complete secrecy of such a decision was imperative."

The Supreme Court confined its observations to "commend to the Authorities to fulfill their commitment made in terms of the stated Notification permitting withdrawal of Rs.24,000/- per account holder of the Bank per week to the extent possible and review that decision periodically and take necessary corrective measures in that behalf."

The outcome of this challenge will be really interesting and can have, beyond the realm of these questions, far reaching implications on the flexibility and powers of the executive government to take action on issues affecting the society at large.

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