Though the concept of finality of judgment has to be preserved, at the same time, the principle of ex debito justitiae cannot be given a gobye. If the Court finds that the earlier judgment does not lay down a correct position of law, it is always permissible for the Court to reconsider the same and if necessary, to refer it to a larger Bench
Question of law vs. issue of law
There is no doubt that the Court has an extensive power to correct an error or to review its decision but that cannot be done at the cost of doctrine of finality. An issue of law can be overruled later on, but a question of fact cannot be reopened once it has been finally sealed in proceedings inter se between the parties.
It is well settled that when a question of fact has reached finality inter se between the parties, it cannot be reopened in a collateral proceeding. However, an issue of law can be overruled later on.
At one time adherence to the principle of stare decisis was so rigidly followed in the courts governed by the English jurisprudence that departing from an earlier precedent was considered heresy. With the declaration of the practice statement by the House of Lords, the highest court in England was enabled to depart from a previous decision when it appeared right to do so.
The next step forward by the highest court to do justice was to review its judgment inter partes to correct injustice.
The Supreme Court has been conferred the power to review its own judgments under Article 137 of the Constitution. The role of the judiciary to merely interpret and declare the law was the concept of a bygone age. It is no more open to debate as it is fairly settled that the courts can so mould and lay down the law formulating principles and guidelines as to adapt and adjust to the changing conditions of the society, the ultimate objective being to dispense justice.
In the recent years there is a discernible shift in the approach of the final courts in favour of rendering justice on the facts presented before them, without abrogating but bypassing the principle of finality of the judgment (see Union of India v. Raghubir Singh [(1989) 2 SCC 754).
Doctrine of binding precedent
The doctrine of binding precedent, like all principles evolved by man for the regulation of the social order, is circumscribed in its governance by perceptible limitations, limitations arising by reference to the need for readjustment in a changing society, a readjustment of legal norms demanded by a changed social context. This need for adapting the law to new urges in society brings home the truth of the Holmesian aphorism that ‘the life of the law has not been logic it has been experience.
Rendering justice vs. Finality of judgement
The concern of the Court for rendering justice in a cause is not less important than the principle of finality of its judgment. One is faced with competing principles — ensuring certainty and finality of a judgment of the Court of last resort and dispensing justice on reconsideration of a judgment on the ground that it is vitiated being in violation of the principles of natural justice or giving scope for apprehension of bias due to a Judge who participated in the decision making process not disclosing his links with a party to the case, or on account of abuse of the process of the court.
Such a judgment, far from ensuring finality, will always remain under the cloud of uncertainty. Almighty alone is the dispenser of absolute justice — a concept which is not disputed but by a few. Though Judges of the highest court do their best, subject of course to the limitation of human fallibility, yet situations may arise, in the rarest of the rare cases, which would require reconsideration of a final judgment to set right miscarriage of justice complained of.
In such case it would not only be proper but also obligatory both legally and morally to rectify the error. The duty to do justice in these rarest of rare cases shall have to prevail over the policy of certainty of judgment as though it is essentially in the public interest that a final judgment of the final court in the country should not be open to challenge, yet there may be circumstances, as mentioned above, wherein declining to reconsider the judgment would be oppressive to judicial conscience and would cause perpetuation of irremediable injustice.
No man should suffer because of the mistake of the court
Accordingly, the Court, to prevent abuse of its process and to cure a gross miscarriage of justice, may reconsider its judgments in exercise of its inherent power.
One of the first and highest duties of all courts is to take care that the act of the court does no injury to any of the suitors, and when the expression ‘the act of the court’ is used, it does not mean merely the act of the primary court, or of any intermediate court of appeal, but the act of the court as a whole, from the lowest court which entertains jurisdiction over the matter up to the highest court which finally disposes of the case.
It is the duty of the aggregate of those Tribunals to take care that no act of the court in the course of the whole of the proceedings does an injury to the suitors in the court.
The basic fundamentals of the administration of justice are simple. No man should suffer because of the mistake of the court. No man should suffer a wrong by technical procedure of irregularities. Rules or procedures are the handmaids of justice and not the mistress of the justice. Ex debito justitiae, we must do justice to him. If a man has been wronged so long as it lies within the human machinery of administration of justice that wrong must be remedied. This is a peculiar fact of this case which requires emphasis.
Principle of ex debito justitiae
The principle of ex debito justitiae means that no man should suffer because of the mistake of the court. No man should suffer a wrong by technical procedure of irregularities. The rules of procedure are the handmaidens of justice and not the mistress of justice. If a man has been wronged, so long as the wrong lies within the human machinery of administration of justice, that wrong must be remedied.
All rules of court are nothing but provisions intended to secure proper administration of justice. It is, therefore, essential that they should be made to serve and be subordinate to that purpose.
Procedure is a handmaid and not a mistress of law, intended to subserve and facilitate the cause of justice and not to govern or obstruct it. Like all rules of procedure, this rule demands a construction which would promote this cause Once judicial satisfaction is reached that the direction was not open to be made and it is accepted as a mistake of the court, it is not only appropriate but also the duty of the court to rectify the mistake by exercising inherent powers. Judicial opinion heavily leans in favour of this view that a mistake of the court can be corrected by the court itself without any fetters.
The judge had jurisdiction to correct his own error without entering into a discussion of the merits.
An abuse of the process of the court may be committed by the court or by a party. Where a court employed a procedure in doing something which it never intended to do and there is an abuse of the process of the court it can be corrected.
Where substantial injustice would otherwise result, the Court has, in Their Lordships’ opinion, an inherent power to set aside its own judgments of condemnation so as to let in bona fide claims by parties.
Principle actus curia neminem gravabit — an act of the court shall prejudice no one
Indian authorities are in abundance to support the view that injustice done should be corrected by applying the principle actus curia neminem gravabit — an act of the court shall prejudice no one.
To err is human, is the oftquoted saying. Courts including the apex one are no exception. To own up the mistake when judicial satisfaction is reached does not militatte against its status or authority. Perhaps it would enhance both.
In cases relating to the apex court, no litigant has any opportunity of approaching any higher forum to question its decisions. Once a judicial satisfaction is reached that the direction was not open to be made and it is accepted as a mistake of the court, it is not only appropriate but also the duty of the court to rectify the mistake by exercising its inherent powers. To err is human, and the Courts including the Apex Court are no exception.
Challenge to the final order forming part of the judgment versus challenge to the ratio decidendi of the judgment
There is a fundamental difference between challenge to the final order forming part of the judgment and challenge to the ratio decidendi of the judgment. Broadly speaking, every judgment of superior courts has three segments, namely, (i) the facts and the point at issue; (ii) the reasons for the decision; and (iii) the final order containing the decision. The reasons for the decision or the ratio decidendi is not the final order containing the decision.
Though in a judgment, the ratio decidendi may point to a particular result, the decision (final order relating to relief) may be different and not a natural consequence of the ratio decidendi of the judgment. This may happen either on account of any subsequent event or the need to mould the relief to do complete justice in the matter. It is the ratio decidendi of a judgment and not the final order in the judgment, which forms a precedent. The term “judgment” and “decision” are used, rather loosely, to refer to the entire judgment or the final order or the ratio decidendi of a judgment.
A petition under Article 32 would not be maintainable to challenge or set aside or quash the final order contained in a judgment of this Court. It does not lay down a proposition that the ratio decidendi of any earlier decision cannot be examined or differed in another case. Where violation of a fundamental right of a citizen is alleged in a petition under Article 32, it cannot be dismissed, as not maintainable, merely because it seeks to distinguish or challenge the ratio decidendi of an earlier judgment, except where it is between the same parties and in respect of the same cause of action. Where a legal issue raised in a petition under Article 32 is covered by a decision of this Court, the Court may dismiss the petition following the ratio decidendi of the earlier decision. Such dismissal is not on the ground of “maintainability” but on the ground that the issue raised is not tenable, in view of the law laid down in the earlier decision. But if the Court is satisfied that the issue raised in the later petition requires consideration and in that context the earlier decision requires reexamination, the Court can certainly proceed to examine the matter (or refer the matter to a larger Bench, if the earlier decision is not of a smaller Bench). When the issue is reexamined and a view is taken different from the one taken earlier, a new ratio is laid down. When the ratio decidendi of the earlier decision undergoes such change, the final order of the earlier decision as applicable to the parties to the earlier decision, is in no way altered or disturbed. Therefore, the contention that a writ petition under Article 32 is barred or not maintainable with reference to an issue which is the subject matter of an earlier decision, is not acceptable.
It is clear that the ratio decidendi of an earlier decision can be reexamined or differed with in another case.
If the Court is satisfied that the issue raised in the later petition requires consideration and in that context, the earlier decision requires reexamination, the Court can certainly proceed to examine the matter or refer the matter to a larger Bench, if the earlier decision is not of a smaller Bench. The contention that a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution was barred or not maintainable with reference to an issue which was the subject matter of an earlier decision was specially rejected.
In conclusion, though the concept of finality of judgment has to be preserved, at the same time, the principle of ex debito justitiae cannot be given a gobye. If the Court finds that the earlier judgment does not lay down a correct position of law, it is always permissible for the Court to reconsider the same and if necessary, to refer it to a larger Bench.
These principles were followed by the Supreme Court in HDFC Bank vs. UOI and it was held an earlier judgement on whether the RBI is entitled to direct private Banks disclosure confidential and sensitive information pertaining to customers’ affairs etc under the Right to Information Act, 2005 requires to be reconsidered.