Round-Up: The Delhi High Court’s Experiments with the Constitution

(This is the second part of three blog posts that round-up some recent judicial pronouncements. For work-related reasons, I did not have the time to write about them when they were delivered. – Ed.)

Benches of the Delhi High Court have issued a series of interesting rulings in the first half of 2018. A summary follows.

Article 14 and Genetic Discrimination

In United India Insurance Company v Jai Parkash Tayal, a single-judge bench of the Delhi High Court invalidated a clause of an insurance contract that excluded “genetic disorders” from the scope of insurance. The judgment proceeded on multiple grounds, and makes for fascinating reading. In particular, Justice Pratibha Singh invalidated the clause on the grounds of Article 14 (equality before law), 21 (right to health), and the impermissibility of changing an insurance contract to the detriment of the insured. The Article 21 issue is not one I will discuss here: as readers of this blog will know, the reading in of broad socio-economic rights into Article 21, and their exceedingly uneven application on a case-to-case basis, is not something I am very comfortable with. This case, like so many others, tells us that there is a right to health, and then uses it to achieve a specific outcome, but somewhere along the way, the precise spelling out of the scope, contours and limits of this right, and the nature of the obligations it places upon the State, is lost by the wayside.

What I find much more interesting, however, is the manner in which the Court used Article 14. In paragraph D1, Justice Singh observed:

Article 14 of the Constitution of India prohibits discrimination of any kind. This would include discrimination based on genetic heritage of an individual.

There is, however, something odd about this framing. Article 14 is the equality clause. The non-discrimination clause is Article 15(1), which prohibits the State from discriminating on grounds of race, religion, caste, sex, and place of origin. Moreover, Article 15(1) is a closed list – unlike certain other Constitutions, no additional, analogous grounds can be brought within its ambit. Article 14, on the other hand, is a general equality clause that has been interpreted by the Courts to exclude irrational classification or arbitrary State action, on a case-to-case basis. Unlike Article 15(1), Article 14 does not – a priori – rule out specific grounds upon which differentiation may be based. The distinction between Articles 14 and 15(1) was expressed by Patanjali Sastri CJ in a classic exposition, in Kathi Raning Rawat v The State of Saurashtra (1952)

As we can see, Justice Singh’s observation that Article 14 prohibits discrimination on the basis of genetic heritage appears to conflate Sastri CJI’s distinction between Articles 14 and 15(1).

In the latter part of the judgment, however, Justice Singh modulates the claim. In the context of insurance contracts, she concedes that there may be a class of narrowly defined cases (to be articulated by the policy-makers) where certain kinds of genetic diseases can be excluded by the insurer. Her specific problem is with the width of this exclusion clause (covering all “genetic disorders”) which – as she states in the operative part of the judgment – violates Article 14. Consequently, Justice Singh’s argument is not that “discrimination” on the basis of genetic characteristics will automatically violate Article 14, but rather, it will presumptively violate Article 14, unless strong reasons can be shown that justify the violation. In other words, differentiation based on genetic differences will be subjected to stricter judicial scrutiny than other classifications.

Is there any constitutional warrant for this reading of Articles 14 and 15? I have recently argued that there is, in a defence of the Delhi High Court’s Naz Foundation judgment (SSRN version here). Briefly, the argument is as follows: an analysis of the Constituent Assembly Debates shows that the framers did not intent Articles 14 and 15 to operate as separate silos. Rather, Article 14 was the general expression of the concrete commitment towards non-discrimination under Article 15(1). The framers took the five most publicly salient grounds at the time – race, religion, caste, sex, place of origin – and prohibited all discrimination involving those grounds. However, the framers also realised that forms and sites of discrimination evolve, and what is not salient today can become salient tomorrow (classic examples: sexual orientation, disability, and age, which are all present in some more recent Constitutional documents). For this reason, the framers included Article 14, whose more open-ended language would allow future Courts to develop new grounds of discrimination, and subject them to stricter scrutiny (something akin to a proportionality standard). Unfortunately, however, this possibility has never seriously been explored by the Courts, who have been caught between the classification and the arbitrariness standards under Article 14. Naz Foundation represented the first serious articulation of this vision of Articles 14 and 15(1). United India Insurance Company is another small, incremental step towards it.

Uncertainties over Horizontality

The Delhi High Court was very clear that Articles 14 and 21 applied to all insurance contracts, whether entered into by a State insurer or a private insurance company. This, however, is a problematic conclusion. Articles 14 and 21 very categorically apply to State action. “State”, under Article 12, is limited to government and entities under the “functional, financial, and administrative” control of government. Without some additional reasoning, a private insurance company cannot be brought within the ambit of the fundamental rights chapter.

The Court’s response was to argue that insurance contracts are unequal (like contracts of adhesion, although the Court did not use the term), and place the insurance applicant at a disadvantage. That is correct – and many jurisdictions recognise that such contracts are of a special kind, that cannot be interpreted in a normal way (see the recent decision of the UK Employment Tribunal involving Uber’s contracts with its drivers). However, the remedies for that are provided within contract law: interpret ambiguous terms in favour of the weaker party, and if the unconscionability is clear, void the contract on grounds of public policy. The Court could even have said – as it came close to doing – that such contracts had a public element, and therefore could be subjected to public law norms (which include norms of non-discrimination). There is no warrant, however, for making Part III of the Constitution directly applicable to private insurance contracts, and to the extent the Court did so, I submit that it erred.

The same issue arose in another Delhi High Court decision that made the news recently, Sanghamitra Acharya v State (NCT) of DelhiSanghamitra Acharya involved the commitment of an adult woman into a mental hospital at the instance of her parents. Justice Muralidhar, writing for the division bench, held that the woman’s rights to liberty, autonomy and dignity had been violated (especially in view of the Puttaswamy judgment), that the parents, police, and the hospital were in breach of their legal obligations, and ordered compensation. This is, of course, impeccable; in the course of the judgment, however, the Court expressly held that Articles 19 and 21 (along with Articles 15(2), 17, and 23) were horizontally applicable between private parties.

It is true that Articles 19 and 21 are not categorically framed as injunctions against the State. Article 19 stipulates that “All citizens shall have the right… to freedom of speech and expression…” and Article 21 states that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” Therefore, there is no express textual bar against reading Articles 19 and 21 horizontally. However, the reference to State restrictions under Articles 19(2) to 19(6), and the specific reference to “procedure established by law” under Article 21, strongly indicates that these Articles are meant to apply vertically, between State and individual. This is buttressed by the fact that where the framers did intend the horizontal application of fundamental rights, they were clear and unambiguous about it (Articles 15(2), 17, 23, 24). And lastly, this is how the Courts have almost uniformly understood and interpreted them (there are some exceptions, such as the Aruna Shanbaug judgment). It is, of course, open to the Delhi High Court to hold that this jurisprudence is misguided; however, such a radical change in the interpretation of Articles 19 and 21, it needed to provide strong reasons for that holding, and also to elaborate its own theory justifying the horizontal reading of Articles 19 and 21. With respect, the Court did not do that.

Legal Interpretation in the Shadow of the Constitution

What the Court did do very well, in my opinion, was bring the Constitution to bear upon the interpretation of the Mental Health Act, which was the relevant legislation at issue. The Court was examining whether the “involuntary admission” into a mental hospital was consistent with the scheme of the Act. Under Section 19, a person could be involuntarily admitted into a mental hospital by their relative or friend, if the medical officer in-charge was “satisfied” that it was in the interests of the patient. The Court held that although Section 19 was a “stand-alone” provision, the rights under Article 21 required that the word “satisfaction” be read as “objective satisfaction”; that is, the medical officer would have to follow the legal definition of “unsoundness of mind” (which is narrow and circumscribed) before allowing involuntary admission. On facts, it was found that the medical professional had not even attempted to apply any objective standards in his determination.

The form of interpretation that the Court engaged in here is one that Indian Courts have attempted in the past, but only sporadically: borrowed from German law, it is called “the radiating effect” put broadly, holds that a Constitution is not merely a set of rights, but an objective “order of values”, and these values “radiate” through the legal system. In concrete terms, a Court is to interpret laws – including private law – in a manner that advances and promotes the constitutional order of values. By interpreting “satisfaction” (an ambiguous word) to refer to “objective satisfaction”, and to justify that reading by specifically pegging it to constitutional rights, the Sanghamitra Acharya is an important judgment in the context of the theory of the radiating effect.

Traces of this are visible in two other judgments the Delhi High Court delivered, on the subject of labour law. In Indu Munshi v Union of India, a division bench of the Delhi High Court ordered the regularisation of a batch of Kashmiri Pandit schoolteachers. The schoolteachers had been forced to flee from the Valley in 1993, and had come to Delhi. They had been given contractual jobs as schoolteachers in 1994 – and then kept on contract for the next twenty-four years. The issue of regularisation is a fraught one, and any Court that wishes to order regularisation has to content with the challenge of the Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench judgment in Uma Devi’s Case, which invoked the constitutional right to equality of opportunity to hold that contractual employees who had been appointed by the “back door” could not later be regularised “at the cost of” other employees. Uma Devi’s ratio has, however, been subsequently whittled down (the High Court discussed some of these judgments), and here Justice Bhat, writing on behalf of a Division Bench, held that, on facts, there was no “back door appointment.” One of the crucial features that weighed with Justice Bhat was the fact that the Kashmiri Pandits had arrived as refugees, and were compelled to accept whatever offer of employment was open to them, without any genuine choice or bargaining power. When combined with the fact that the process of appointments was competitive, and that the teachers had worked against regular (unfilled) vacancies for twenty-two years, as well as a number of other technical factors, Justice Bhat held that, notwithstanding Uma Devi, the case for regularisation was unanswerable. The Court also held that the contractual teachers deserved remuneration that was equal to the sanctioned remuneration for regular schoolteachers. It adopted a broad version of the “equal pay for equal work” doctrine (which focused on the nature of work) rather than a narrow version (which made technical factors such as cadres and sources of appointment – which could easily be undermined – determinative), and again, framed the issue as a right against exploitation:

Turning to the issue of equal salary and remuneration, the Govt of NCT of Delhi had argued that the teachers could not question their emoluments, because they had accepted their contractual status and functioned in that capacity for over a decade and a half. The teachers’ argument is that they had practically no choice; the alternative to accepting the job with reduced emoluments was starvation or no employment. Such a Hobson’s choice is not meaningful. This court agrees with the contention and holds that there cannot be any estoppel in such situations, barring claims to parity. Long ago, in Sanjit Roy v State of Rajasthan, AIR 1983 SC 328, the Supreme Court characterized as forced labour the acceptance, under compulsion of circumstances, by a person without employment, remuneration that was lower than the minimum wage and stated “that it may therefore be legitimately presumed that when a person provides labour or service to another against receipt of remuneration which is less than the minimum wage, he is acting under the force of some compulsion which drives him to work though he is paid less than what he is entitled under the law to receive.”

And:

In the facts of the present cases too, the court is of the opinion that the mere nomenclature of “contract teachers” is an artificial one given to the teachers who approached this court through the writ petitions that have led to these appeals; they were appointed against regular vacancies, their services are unbroken and have not been continued on account of any stay or court directed interim order; their appointments were pursuant to a constitutionally recognized and acceptable procedure of advertisement and calling names from employment exchange; they each held and hold the requisite qualifications, including B.Ed; all of them were interviewed before their appointment. For these reasons, having regard to their unbroken employment for over two decades, in line with the decision in Umadevi (supra) as understood in Pratap Kishore Panda (supra), Malati Dass (supra) and Sheo Narain Nagar (supra), the said Kashmiri migrant teachers are entitled to be treated as regular appointees. They shall also be entitled to provident fund benefit, gratuity and pension upon attaining the age of superannuation. If any of the petitioners or any other Kashmiri migrant teacher has already attained superannuation or has died in the interregnum the Govt of NCT of Delhi shall calculate their entitlement and release them to such retired employees, and in the case of death, release such amounts to the legal representatives of such deceased employees.

Of course, the Constitution was not directly involved in this case, in the sense that there was no legal provision under challenge. However, it is obvious that the Constitution – and especially, its egalitarian and anti-exploitative ethos – permeated each of the choices the judges had to make. Uma Devi had invoked the doctrine of equality of opportunity to set up “regular” and “back door” appointees in conflict with each other, competing for the same scarce public good (jobs). The Delhi High Court rejected this race-to-the-bottom vision of equality and, instead, focused upon an understanding of equality that was sensitive to exploitation and disparities in bargaining power, to hold that Uma Devi was inapplicable to the present case, and furthermore, the the constitutional principle of equal pay for equal work would also apply.

The Constitution was more directly at play in M/s Metrro Waste Handling v Delhi Jal Board, a brief judgment concerning manual scavenging, and bookending its holding by quotes from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. The Delhi Jal Board issued a tender for mechanised sewer cleaning, where it did two things: first, it stipulated that only one machine would be issued per bidder; and second, it stipulated that preference would be given to the families of deceased manual scavengers and ex-manual scavengers. The first condition – it argued – was to encourage small entrepreneurs and the underprivileged class to apply. The justification for the second is obvious. The Petitioner challenged the first condition as being arbitrary, and the second as imposing a “100 percent reservation”, which was unconstitutional.

The Court rejected both arguments. On the first, it found that the DJB had set up an elaborate system of loans and other forms of aid to genuinely enable underprivileged sections to effectively bid for the tender; the argument from arbitrariness, therefore, was dismissed. From a constitutional point of view, however, the second issue is more interesting. The Court rejected the argument that the DJB’s order of preference was establishing 100 percent reservation. This was not – it observed – a system of “quotas”:

What is in issue, however, in this case is the attempt of the state, uniquely to ensure that the livelihood and lives of sewage workers performing manual scavenging tasks are meaningfully uplifted. The system of preference is not reservation, in any sense of the term. The court recollects what was held in Government of Andhra Pradesh v Vijaykumar1995 (4) SCC 520 that the wording of Art. 15(3) enables “special provisions” is wider than Article 16(4) which enables a special provision by way of reservations. Article 15(3) is wider and includes “positive action programmes in addition to reservations”.

However, if what was involved was not reservation, then the provisions of Articles 16(4) (since it specifically mentions reservation). Nor could 15(3)’s “special provisions” be invoked, since they are limited to women and children. The only alternative, therefore – as the Court noted – was that preferential treatment of underprivileged classes was itself consistent with the guarantee of equality of opportunity under Article 16(1). Or, in other words – as the concurring opinions of Justices Mathew and Krishna Iyer had famously held in NM Thomas, but which were not subsequently developed in detail – the constitutional vision of equality is a substantive vision, which factors in structural and systemic discrimination, and views the overcoming of structural barriers as part of the very meaning of equality. As Justice Bhat – again, writing for a division bench – held:

Seen from the context of the decisions quoted previously, the NIT conditions are not meant to exclude the “general” class of citizens. They afford an opportunity to an utterly marginalized section a “step up” (or to use the expression in Nagaraj (supra), “catch up”) with the other citizens. The object of such preference is plainly to enable the meaningful participation of the most marginalized section, i.e. workers involved in manual scavenging, and scheduled caste/scheduled tribe communities (who are so chosen, having regard to what the Constitution framers stated as “a backward section of the Hindu community who were handicapped by the practice of untouchability”). The state, i.e., DJB, in our opinion, had a compelling interest in promoting the welfare of these class of citizens, while conceiving and implementing this system of preferences, in the impugned NIT.

Indirect Discrimination

This provides an ideal segue into the last case: Madhu v Northern RailwayMadhu involved the interpretation of certain Indian Railways rules. The dispute centred around a railway employee taking his wife and daughter “off” his list of “dependents” entitled to free medical treatment, on the ground that he had “disowned” them. The Railways argued that for a person’s dependents to avail of treatment, he had to make a “declaration” that they were part of his family; in this case, since the employee had refused to do so, the Railways was justified in denying them medical treatment. The Division Bench, speaking through Justice Bhat – yet again! – rejected this argument, arguing that not only was such an interpretation textually untenable, but also that accepting it would perpetuate indirect discrimination:

The Northern Railways contends that the Appellants are not denied the medical card because they are women, but rather because their husband and father had not made the requisite declaration. However, this explanation is not enough. It is not sufficient to say that the reasoning of Northern Railways did not intentionally discriminate against the Appellants because they were women. Law does not operate in a vacuum and the reasoning and consequent decision of Northern Railways must be examined in the social context that it operates and the effects that it creates in the real world. Even a facially neutral decision can have disproportionate impact on a constitutionally protected class.

The reason that the drafters of the Constitution included Article 15 and 16 was because women (inter alia) have been subjected to historic discrimination that makes a classification which disproportionately affects them as a class constitutionally untenable. The Northern Railways decision to not grant the Appellants medical cards clearly has such a disproportionate effect. By leaving an essential benefit such as medical services subject to a declaration by the railway officer/servant, the dependents are subject to the whims and fancies of such employee. The large majority of dependents are likely to be women and children, and by insisting that the railway officer/servant makes a declaration, the Railway authorities place these women and children at risk of being denied medical services.

It is irrelevant that the Railways did not deny them the medical card because the Appellants were women, or that it is potentially possible that a male dependent may also be denied benefits under decision made by the Railways. The ultimate effect of its decision has a disparate impact on women by perpetuating the historic denial of agency that women have faced in India, and deny them benefits as dependents.

The concept of indirect discrimination – discussed in some detail on this blog previously – has been incorporated into the jurisprudence of many other constitutional courts (the High Court cited some of them). Indian Courts have taken tentative steps towards it, but Madhu represents perhaps the first full-blooded articulation and defence of indirect discrimination as a form of discrimination prohibited by the Constitution. It will, hopefully, be the first of many instances.
 

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1 Comment

Filed under Ambedkar, Article 12: Meaning of "State", Article 15 (general), Article 21 and the Right to Life, Bodily Integrity, Disparate Impact, Equal Pay for Equal Work, Equality, Horizontal Rights, Labour Law and the Constitution, Meaning of "State", Non-discrimination, Privacy, Regularisation, Reservations/Affirmative Action, Right to Health, Sex Discrimination, Sex Equality

One response to “Round-Up: The Delhi High Court’s Experiments with the Constitution

  1. vijay mehta

    Race includes genetic order/disorder. Author is requested to take note of this science.Thus Articles 14 and 15 are applicable for the same remedies.

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