Legal Blog: Writ Jurisdiction : Complicated Questions of Fact : The Law

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Writ Jurisdiction : Complicated Questions of Fact : The Law

Justice Sinha
Justice Sinha and Justice Bhandari of the Supreme Court, in Noble Resources Ltd vs State Of Orissa & Anr., have examined the law relating to exercise of writ jurisdiction by the High Courts in the Country and laid down that though there is no bar on the High Court, while exercising writ jurisdiction, to deal with disputed questions of fact, the Courts should abstain from exercising such jurisdiction especially in cases where an alternate remedy is available. The Bench held as under;

On a conspectus of several decisions, a Division Bench of this Court in ABL International Ltd. (supra) opined that such a writ petition would be maintainable even if it involves some disputed questions of fact. It was stated that no decision lays down an absolute rule that in all cases involving disputes questions of facts, the party should be relegated to a civil court.

In Mahabir Auto Stores & Others v. Indian Oil Corporation and Others [(1990) 3 SCC 752], this Court observed :

"It appears to us that rule of reason and rule against arbitrariness and discrimination, rules of fair play and natural justice are part of the rule of law applicable in situation or action by State instrumentality in dealing with citizens in a situation like the present one. Even though the rights of the citizens are in the nature of contractual rights, the manner, the method and motive of a decision of entering or not entering into a contract, are subject to judicial review on the touchstone of relevance and reasonableness, fair play, natural justice, equality and non-discrimination in the type of the transactions and nature of the dealing as in the present case."

In State of Uttar Pradesh and Others v. Vijay Bahadur Singh and Others [(1982) 2 SCC 365], a Division Bench of this Court held that the Government cannot be denied to exercise its discretionary power provided the same is not arbitrary.

Interplay between writ jurisdiction and contractual disputes has given rise to a plethora of decisions by this Court. See for example M/s Dwarkadas Marfatia & Sons v. Board of Trustees of the Port of Bombay [(1989) 3 SCC 293] and Mahabir Auto Stores (supra).

In Jamshed Hormusji Wadia v. Board of Trustees, Port of Mumbai and Another [(2004) 3 SCC 214], this Court stated :

"The position of law is settled that the State and its authorities including instrumentalities of States have to be just, fair and reasonable in all their activities including those in the field of contracts. Even while playing the role of a landlord or a tenant, the State and its authorities remain so and cannot be heard or seen causing displeasure or discomfort to Article 14 of the Constitution of India.

It is common knowledge that several rent control legislations exist spread around the country, the emergence whereof was witnessed by the post-World War scarcity of accommodation. Often these legislations exempt from their applicability the properties owned by the Government, semi-government or public bodies, Government-owned corporations, trusts and other instrumentalities of State"

Non statutory contracts have, however, been treated differently. [See Bareilly Development Authority and Another v. Ajai Pal Singh and Others [(1989) 2 SCC 116].

A distinction is also made between performance of a statutory duty and/or dealing of a public matter by a State and its commercial activities. [See Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. v. Amritsar Gas Service and Others (1991) 1 SCC 533] and L.I.C. of India v. Escort Ltd. [(1986) 1 SCC 264].

In ABL International Ltd. (supra), this Court opined that on a given set of facts, if a State acts in an arbitrary manner even in a matter of contract, a writ petition would be maintainable. It was opined : "It is clear from the above observations of this Court, once the State or an instrumentality of the State is a party of the contract, it has an obligation in law to act fairly, justly and reasonably which is the requirement of Article 14 of the Constitution of India. Therefore, if by the impugned repudiation of the claim of the appellants the first respondent as an instrumentality of the State has acted in contravention of the abovesaid requirement of Article 14, then we have no hesitation in holding that a writ court can issue suitable directions to set right the arbitrary actions of the first respondent"

Contractual matters are, thus, not beyond the realm of judicial review. Its application may, however, be limited.

Although terms of the invitation to tender may not be open to judicial scrutiny, but the courts can scrutinize the award of contract by the Government or its agencies in exercise of their power of judicial review to prevent arbitrariness or favouritism. [See Directorate of Education and Others v. Educomp Datamatics Ltd. and Others (2004) 4 SCC 19]. However, the court may refuse to exercise its jurisdiction, if it does not involve any public interest.

Although the scope of judicial review or the development of law in this field has been noticed hereinbefore particularly in the light of the decision of this Court in ABL International Ltd. (supra), each case, however, must be decided on its own facts. Public interest as noticed hereinbefore, may be one of the factors to exercise power of judicial review. In a case where a public law element is involved, judicial review may be permissible. [See Binny Ltd. and Another v. V. Sadasivan and Others [(2005) 6 SCC 657] and G.B. Mahajan and Others v. Jalgaon Municipal Council and Others [(1991) 3 SCC 91].

In State of U.P and Another. v. Johri Mal [(2004) 4 SCC 714], it was held :

"It is well settled that while exercising the power of judicial review the court is more concerned with the decision-making process than the merit of the decision itself. In doing so, it is often argued by the defender of an impugned decision that the court is not competent to exercise its power when there are serious disputed questions of facts; when the decision of the Tribunal or the decision of the fact-finding body or the arbitrator is given finality by the statute which governs a given situation or which, by nature of the activity the decision- maker's opinion on facts is final. But while examining and scrutinising the decision-making process it becomes inevitable to also appreciate the facts of a given case as otherwise the decision cannot be tested under the grounds of illegality, irrationality or procedural impropriety. How far the court of judicial review can reappreciate the findings of facts depends on the ground of judicial review. For example, if a decision is challenged as irrational, it would be well-nigh impossible to record a finding whether a decision is rational or irrational without first evaluating the facts of the case and coming to a plausible conclusion and then testing the decision of the authority on the touchstone of the tests laid down by the court with special reference to a given case. This position is well settled in the Indian administrative law. Therefore, to a limited extent of scrutinising the decision- making process, it is always open to the court to review the evaluation of facts by the decision-maker."

Another field where judicial review is permissible would be when mala fide or ulterior motives is attributed. In Asia Foundation and Construction Ltd. v. Trafalgar House Construction India Ltd. and Others [(1997) 1 SCC 738], this Court held :

"We are of the considered opinion that it was not within the permissible limits of interference for a court of law, particularly when there has been no allegation of malice or ulterior motive and particularly when the court has not found any mala fides or favouritism in the grant of contract in favour of the appellant"

It was further held :

"Therefore, though the principle of judicial review cannot be denied so far as exercise of contractual powers of government bodies are concerned, but it is intended to prevent arbitrariness or favouritism and it is exercised in the larger public interest or if it is brought to the notice of the court that in the matter of award of a contract power has been exercised for any collateral purpose. But on examining the facts and circumstances of the present case and on going through the records we are of the considered opinion that none of the criteria has been satisfied justifying Court's interference in the grant of contract in favour of the appellant"

We, however, having regard to ABL International Ltd (supra), do not accept Dr. Dhawan's contention that only because there exists a disputed question of fact or an alternative remedy is available, the same by itself would be sufficient for the High Court to decline its jurisdiction.

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