In essence, the test is to see whether there is any infirmity in the decision-making process and not in the decision itself. The court has to find out if the administrator has left out relevant factors or taken into account irrelevant factors. The decision of the administrator must have been within the four corners of the law, and not one which no sensible person could have reasonably arrived at, having regard to the above principles, and must have been a bona fide one. The decision could be one of many choices open to the authority but it was for that authority to decide upon the choice and not for the court to substitute its view
The law on the scope for judicial interference in matters of administrative decisions was explained by the Supreme Court in State of NCT of Delhi & Ors. Vs. Sanjeev.
The Court held that administrative action is stated to be referable to broad area of governmental activities in which the repositories of power may exercise every class of statutory function of executive, quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial nature. It is trite law that exercise of power, whether legislative or administrative, will be set aside if there is manifest error in the exercise of such power or the exercise of the power is manifestly arbitrary (see State of U.P. v. Renusagar Power Co. [(1988) 4 SCC 59 : AIR 1988 SC 1737] ).
It was pointed out that at one time, the traditional view in England was that the executive was not answerable where its action was attributable to the exercise of prerogative power. Professor de Smith in his classical work Judicial Review of Administrative Action, 4th Edn. at pp. 285-87 states the legal position in his own terse language that the relevant principles formulated by the courts may be broadly summarised as follows:
The authority in which discretion is vested can be compelled to exercise that discretion, but not to exercise it in any particular manner. In general, discretion must be exercised only by the authority to which it is committed. That authority must genuinely address itself to the matter before it; it must not act under the dictates of another body or disable itself from exercising discretion in each individual case. In the purported exercise of its discretion, it must not do what it has been forbidden to do, nor must it do what it has not been authorised to do. It must act in good faith, must have regard to all relevant considerations and must not be influenced by irrelevant considerations, must not seek to promote purposes alien to the letter or to the spirit of the legislation that gives it power to act, and must not act arbitrarily or capriciously. These several principles can conveniently be grouped in two main categories :
(i) failure to exercise a discretion, and (ii) excess or abuse of discretionary power. The two classes are not, however, mutually exclusive. Thus, discretion may be improperly fettered because irrelevant considerations have been taken into account, and where an authority hands over its discretion to another body it acts ultra vires.
The Supreme Court noted that the present trend of judicial opinion is to restrict the doctrine of immunity from judicial review to those classes of cases which relate to deployment of troupes, entering into international treaties, etc. The distinctive features of some of these recent cases signify the willingness of the courts to assert their power to scrutinise the factual basis upon which discretionary powers have been exercised. One can conveniently classify under three heads the grounds on which administrative action is subject to control by judicial review. The first ground is “illegality”, the second “irrationality”, and the third “procedural impropriety”. These principles were highlighted by Lord Diplock in Council of Civil Service Unions v. Minister for the Civil Service [(1984) 3 All ER 935 : 1985 AC 374 : (1984) 3 WLR 1174 (HL)] (commonly known as CCSU case). If the power has been exercised on a non- consideration or non-application of mind to relevant factors, the exercise of power will be regarded as manifestly erroneous. If a power (whether legislative or administrative) is exercised on the basis of facts which do not exist and which are patently erroneous, such exercise of power will stand vitiated. (See CIT v. Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd. [(1983) 4 SCC 392 : 1983 SCC (Tax) 336 : AIR 1984 SC 1182] )
The effect of several decisions on the question of jurisdiction has been summed up by Grahame Aldous and John Alder in their book Applications for Judicial Review, Law and Practice thus:
“There is a general presumption against ousting the jurisdiction of the courts, so that statutory provisions which purport to exclude judicial review are construed restrictively. There are, however, certain areas of governmental activity, national security being the paradigm, which the courts regard themselves as incompetent to investigate, beyond an initial decision as to whether the government’s claim is bona fide. In this kind of non-justiciable area judicial review is not entirely excluded, but very limited. It has also been said that powers conferred by the Royal Prerogative are inherently unreviewable but since the speeches of the House of Lords in Council of Civil Service Unions v. Minister for the Civil Service [(1984) 3 All ER 935 : 1985 AC 374 : (1984) 3 WLR 1174 (HL)] this is doubtful.
Lords Diplock, Scarman and Roskill appeared to agree that there is no general distinction between powers, based upon whether their source is statutory or prerogative but that judicial review can be limited by the subject-matter of a particular power, in that case national security. Many prerogative powers are in fact concerned with sensitive, non-justiciable areas, for example, foreign affairs, but some are reviewable in principle, including the prerogatives relating to the civil service where national security is not involved. Another non-justiciable power is the Attorney General’s prerogative to decide whether to institute legal proceedings on behalf of the public interest.”
(Also see Padfield v. Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food [1968 AC 997 : (1968) 1 All ER 694 : (1968) 2 WLR 924 (HL)] .)
It was emphasized that the court will be slow to interfere in such matters relating to administrative functions unless decision is tainted by any vulnerability enumerated above; like illegality, irrationality and procedural impropriety. Whether action falls within any of the categories has to be established. Mere assertion in that regard would not be sufficient.
The Wednesbury case
The law on the subject was first authoritatively laid down in Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd. v. Wednesbury Corpn., (1947) 2 All ER 680 : (1948) 1 KB 223 (CA)] (“known popularly as “the Wednesbury case“).This is the landmark judgement which lays down various basic principles relating to judicial review of administrative or statutory direction.
The Court summed up the law as follows:
“… It is true that discretion must be exercised reasonably. Now what does that mean? Lawyers familiar with the phraseology used in relation to exercise of statutory discretions often use the word „unreasonable‟ in a rather comprehensive sense. It has frequently been used and is frequently used as a general description of the things that must not be done. For instance, a person entrusted with a discretion must, so to speak, direct himself properly in law. He must call his own attention to the matters which he is bound to consider. He must exclude from his consideration matters which are irrelevant to what he has to consider. If he does not obey those rules, he may truly be said, and often is said, to be acting „unreasonably‟. Similarly, there may be something so absurd that no sensible person could even dream that it lay within the powers of the authority. … In another, it is taking into consideration extraneous matters. It is unreasonable that it might almost be described as being done in bad faith; and in fact, all these things run into one another.”
It was further held that “… it must be proved to be unreasonable in the sense that the court considers it to be a decision that no reasonable body can come to. It is not what the court considers unreasonable. … The effect of the legislation is not to set up the court as an arbiter of the correctness of one view over another.”
The impact of the said landmark judgement is that to arrive at a decision on “reasonableness” the court has to find out if the administrator has left out relevant factors or taken into account irrelevant factors. The decision of the administrator must have been within the four corners of the law, and not one which no sensible person could have reasonably arrived at, having regard to the above principles, and must have been a bona fide one. The decision could be one of many choices open to the authority but it was for that authority to decide upon the choice and not for the court to substitute its view.
Judicial review of administrative action
The principles of judicial review of administrative action were further summarised in 1985 by Lord Diplock in CCSU case [(1984) 3 All ER 935 : 1985 AC 374 : (1984) 3 WLR 1174 (HL)] as illegality, procedural impropriety and irrationality. He said more grounds could in future become available, including the doctrine of proportionality which was a principle followed by certain other members of the European Economic Community. Lord Diplock observed in that case as follows : (All ER p. 950h-j) “Judicial review has I think developed to a stage today when, without reiterating any analysis of the steps by which the development has come about, one can conveniently classify under three heads the grounds on which administrative action is subject to control by judicial review. The first ground I would call “illegality”, the second “irrationality” and the third „procedural impropriety‟. That is not to say that further development on a case-by-case basis may not in course of time add further grounds. I have in mind particularly the possible adoption in the future of the principle of “proportionality” which is recognised in the administrative law of several of our fellow members of the European Economic Community;”
Lord Diplock explained “irrationality” as follows : (All ER p. 951a-b) “By “irrationality” I mean what can by now be succinctly referred to as “Wednesbury unreasonableness”. It applies to a decision which is so outrageous in its defiance of logic or of accepted moral standards that no sensible person who had applied his mind to the question to be decided could have arrived at it.”
In other words, to characterise a decision of the administrator as “irrational” the court has to hold, on material, that it is a decision “so outrageous” as to be in total defiance of logic or moral standards. Adoption of “proportionality” into administrative law was left for the future.
These principles have been noted in the aforesaid terms in Union of India v. G. Ganayutham [(1997) 7 SCC 463 : 1997 SCC (L&S) 1806] . In essence, the test is to see whether there is any infirmity in the decision-making process and not in the decision itself. (See Indian Rly. Construction Co. Ltd. v. Ajay Kumar [(2003) 4 SCC 579 : 2003 SCC (L&S) 528] .)