Guest Post: On the Unlimited Power of Review in Writ Proceedings

[Editorial Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]


[This is a guest post by Krishnesh Bapat.]


In this belated post, I discuss the judgment of the Supreme Court passed in Kantaru Rajeevaru vs Indian Young Lawyers Association on 11th of May 2020 (For the sake of convenience, hereinafter referred to as 11th May order). In this order, a 9 Judge bench of the Supreme Court has detailed the reasons for holding that questions of law can be referred to a larger bench in a review petition. I specifically focus on the part of the order wherein the bench has held that there are no limitations on the Supreme Court in reviewing judgments in writ proceedings. The consequence of this ruling is that review petitioners in writ proceedings do not have to meet the high threshold of Order XLVII Rule 1 of the Code of Civil Procedure (“Code”). Order XLVII Rule 1 of the Code permits review of judgments only if there is discovery of new evidence or an error apparent on the face of the record or any other sufficient reason which is analogous to the first two. Indeed, parties have begun to rely on this order already. It is noteworthy to look at the brief written submissions of the review petitioners in Shantha Sinha and Another vs Union of India and Another. The review petitioners are seeking a review of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India, (2019) 1 SCC 1. In their brief written submission they have pointed out that the Court is not hindered by Order XLVII Rule 1 of the Code. In Paragraph 7 they state:

A 9-Judge Constitution Bench of this Court in its Judgment dated 11.05.2020 in the case of Kantaru Rajeevaru v. Indian Young Lawyers Association and Ors, Review Petition (C) No. 3358/2018 in WP (C) No. 373/2006, while considering the maintainability of the reference, has held that in review petitions arising out of writ petition, this Court under Article 137 read with Article 141 and 142, has wide powers to correct the position of law. It further held that this Court is not hindered by the limitation of Order XLVII Rule 1 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, since writ petition are not ‘civil proceedings’ as specified in Order XLVII Rule 1 of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013

In view of this, it is necessary to analyze the order.

BACKGROUND

Before I begin a critique of the 11th May order, a recap of the ‘Sabarimala Dispute’ and a background of how the 9-Judge bench came to arrive at the aforementioned conclusion is necessary. Indian Young Lawyers Association had filed a Writ Petition challenging the validity of Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 and sought directions to State of Kerala to permit female devotees between the ages of 10 to 50 years to enter Sabarimala temple without any restriction. The case was titled Indian Young Lawyers Association vs State of Kerela (Indian Young Lawyers Association”). On 28th September 2018, by a majority of 4:1 the Supreme Court allowed the Writ Petition and held inter alia that Rule 3(b) was violative of Article 25(1) of the Constitution of India ( Accordingly, women between the ages of 10 to 50 years were permitted to enter the Sabrimala temple.

A number of review petitions and writ petitions were filed against this Judgment. On 14th November 2019, a Judgment in these review petitions was pronounced and was titled Kantaru Rajeevaru vs Indian Young Lawyers Association (“Kantaru Rajeevaru”). In Kantaru Rajeevaru the Judgment in Indian Young Lawyers Association was not stayed. However, a majority of three judges was of the view that the Court should ‘evolve a judicial policy’ and a larger bench of not less than seven judges should put at rest the conflict between Freedom of Religion and other Fundamental Rights guaranteed in Part III. Hence, the majority referred seven issues to a larger bench and stated that the review petitions and the writ petitions were to remain pending while the larger bench decides the reference. Nariman J and Chadrachud J dissented and held that neither were grounds for review made out nor was a reference to a larger bench called for (Kantaru Rajeevaru has been previously critiqued on this blog).

A bench of nine judges was thereafter constituted to answer the reference. When the hearing before the nine judge bench began, a number of parties raised an objection to the reference. They contended that the review petitions in Kantara Rajeevaru were not maintainable because of the limitations in Order XLVII of Supreme Court Rules and hence, the reference arising out of those review petitions was bad. In the alternative, they submitted that reference to a larger bench is permissible only after review is granted. They also contended that hypothetical questions of law should not be referred. On 10th February 2020, the 9 Judge bench dismissed these contentions and through the 11th May order the bench has provided their reasons. The reasoning of the bench in the 11th May order proceeds in the following manner. The bench firstly referred to Order XLVII Rule 1 of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 (Paragraph 11), which states:

The Court may review its judgment or order, but no application for review will be entertained in a civil proceeding except on the ground mentioned in Order XLVII, rule I of the Code, and in a criminal proceeding except on the ground of an error apparent on the face of the record.

By a literal interpretation of this rule, the bench held that the power to review judgments is plenary and limitations exist only in the context of civil proceedings and criminal proceedings (Paragraph 12). Writ Petitions filed under Article 32 of the Constitution do not fall within the purview of civil and criminal proceedings (Paragraph 14). The review petitions in Kantaru Rajeevaru had arisen from a Writ Petition under Article 32. (Paragraph 18). The bench then dismissed the alternative submission of the parties that reference can only be made after grant of review citing Order VI Rule 2 of Supreme Court Rules, 2013 and Article 142 of the Constitution (Paragraph 19 to 25). The bench then proceeded to hold that pure questions of law could be referred to and answered by a larger bench (Paragraph 25 to 29). Then in Paragraph 30 the bench concluded that the review petitions and the references arising from the review petitions were maintainable.

CONCERNS

In this post, I am primarily concerned with the observation made in Paragraphs 11 to 18 and the conclusion drawn in Paragraph 30 that the review petitions are maintainable. There are three concerns I have with the 11th May Judgment which have been detailed below.

Firstly, there is the question of judicial propriety. In Kantaru Rajeevaru, a majority of three judges had referred questions of law to a larger bench while keeping the review petitions pending. They had not commented on the maintainability of the review petitions nor had they referred the question of maintainability to the larger bench. Therefore, strictly speaking, the nine judge bench by holding that the review petitions are maintainable, seems to have traversed beyond its brief and decided an issue pending before the 5 judge bench. The consequence of this ruling is that once the 9 judge bench does evolve a ‘judicial policy’ and the ‘Sabarimala dispute’ is sent back to the 5 Judge bench, that bench will not be able to decide on the maintainability of the review petitions. It is crucial to note that 2 judges of the bench in Kantaru Rajeevaru (Nariman J and Chandrachud J) had held that the grounds for review were not made out. More crucially, the majority had not commented on the maintainability of the review petitions.

Secondly, the manner in which the review petitions were held to be maintainable is also concerning. The bench has perhaps justifiably held that there are no express limitations on the power to review except in the context of civil and criminal proceedings. However, that ipso facto does not mean that review petition in Kantaru Rejeevaru should be admitted. In a catena of judgments over the years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly insisted that the power to review must be exercised sparingly. In Northern India Caterers (India) Ltd. v. Lt. Governor of Delhi, (1980) 2 SCC 167, for himself and Tulzapurkar, J. observed:

……Power to review its judgments has been conferred on the Supreme Court by Article 137 of the Constitution, and that power is subject to the provisions of any law made by Parliament or the rules made under Article 145. In a civil proceeding, an application for review is entertained only on a ground mentioned in Order 47 Rule 1 of the Code of Civil Procedure, and in a criminal proceeding on the ground of an error apparent on the face of the record (Order 40 Rule 1, Supreme Court Rules, 1966). But whatever the nature of the proceeding, it is beyond dispute that a review proceeding cannot be equated with the original hearing of the case, and the finality of the judgment delivered by the Court will not be reconsidered except “where a glaring omission or patent mistake or like grave error has crept in earlier by judicial fallibility”Sow Chandra Kantev. Sheikh Habib [(1975) 1 SCC 674 : 1975 SCC (Tax) 200 : (1975) 3 SCR 933] .

The 9 Judge bench throughout its 29 Page decision has not pointed out the ‘patent mistake’ or a ‘grave error’ that has been committed by the majority of 4 judges in Indian Young Lawyers Association that their judgment must be reviewed. On the other hand Nariman J in Kantaru Rajeevaru had painstakingly analysed all the judgments in Indian Young Lawyers Association, applied the standards of review and held that the grounds for review were not made out.

This leads me to my third concern. The 9 judge bench decision does not provide for any standards which the Court ought to apply while deciding whether to review a judgment arising out of writ proceedings. In the past the Court has applied standards similar to Order XLVII Rule 1 of the Code. For instance, in Sarla Mudgal vs Union of India (1995) 3 SCC 635, 4 Writ Petitions were filed questioning whether a husband, married under Hindu law, can solemnise a second marriage by embracing Islam and without dissolving the first marriage under law. The Court held that in such cases a second marriage would be invalid. In Lily Thomas vs Union of India (2000) 6 SCC 224, petitions were filed seeking review of the decision in Sarla Mudgal. R.P Sethi J, in his concurring judgment, put the contentions of the review petitioners to the standards Order XLVII Rule 1 of the Code and held:

Otherwise also no ground as envisaged under Order XL of the Supreme Court Rules read with Order 47 of the Code of Civil Procedure has been pleaded in the review petition or canvassed before us during the arguments for the purposes of reviewing the judgment in Sarla Mudgal case [Sarla Mudgal, President, Kalyani v. Union of India, (1995) 3 SCC 635 : 1995 SCC (Cri) 569]. It is not the case of the petitioners that they have discovered any new and important matter which after the exercise of due diligence was not within their knowledge or could not be brought to the notice of the Court at the time of passing of the judgment. All pleas raised before us were in fact addressed for and on behalf of the petitioners before the Bench which, after considering those pleas, passed the judgment in Sarla Mudgal case [Sarla Mudgal, President, Kalyani v. Union of India, (1995) 3 SCC 635 : 1995 SCC (Cri) 569] . We have also not found any mistake or error apparent on the face of the record requiring a review. Error contemplated under the rule must be such which is apparent on the face of the record and not an error which has to be fished out and searched. It must be an error of inadvertence. No such error has been pointed out by the learned counsel appearing for the parties seeking review of the judgment. The only arguments advanced were that the judgment interpreting Section 494 amounted to violation of some of the fundamental rights. No other sufficient cause has been shown for reviewing the judgment. The words “any other sufficient reason appearing in Order 47 Rule 1 CPC” must mean “a reason sufficient on grounds at least analogous to those specified in the rule” as was held in Chhajju Ram v. Neki [AIR 1922 PC 112 : 49 IA 144] and approved by this Court in Moran Mar Basselios Catholicos v. Most Rev. Mar Poulose Athanasius [AIR 1954 SC 526 : (1955) 1 SCR 520] . Error apparent on the face of the proceedings is an error which is based on clear ignorance or disregard of the provisions of law. In T.C. Basappa v. T. Nagappa [AIR 1954 SC 440 : (1955) 1 SCR 250] this Court held that such error is an error which is a patent error and not a mere wrong decision…….

Therefore, it can safely be held that the petitioners have not made out any case within the meaning of Article 137 read with Order XL of the Supreme Court Rules and Order 47 Rule 1 CPC for reviewing the judgment in Sarla Mudgal case [Sarla Mudgal, President, Kalyani v. Union of India, (1995) 3 SCC 635 : 1995 SCC (Cri) 569] . The petition is misconceived and bereft of any substance.

 

 Indeed, as mentioned above, Nariman J in Kantaru Rajeevaru also put the contentions of the review petitioners through similar standards. The 9 Judge bench, however, by not undertaking such an exercise, has raised questions of what exercise ought to be undertaken. The judgment on a number of occasions has stated that Order XLVII Rule 1 of the Code is inapplicable to judgments arising out of writ proceedings. If that is the case, there needs to be clarity on the applicable standard. The need of having a standard cannot be understated. Order XLVII Rule 1 of the Code has ensured that there is a finality to judgments delivered by Court and at the same time has provided a mechanism to ensure that injustice is not committed. In absence of this Rule, any party dissatisfied with the decision of the Court will seek a re-hearing and the litigation will be endless.

CONCLUSION

To sum up, three concerns with the 11th May Judgments have been pointed out above. The first pertains to which bench was the most suited to address the question of maintainability. The second concern points out the lackadaisical manner in which the 11th May Judgment holds the Kantaru Rajeevaru review petitions to be maintainable. And lastly, the third concern raises a question for the future as there needs be clarity on the manner in which the Apex Court is going to entertain review petitions.

Guest Post: The Supreme Court’s Powers of Review – A Discordant Note

[Editor’s Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]


[This is a guest post by Ashwin Vardarajan.]


Introduction

A nine-judge bench (“9JB”) of the Supreme Court of India (“SC” or “Court”), on 11th May, 2020, passed an order (for convenience, referred to as “the Order”) releasing the reasons why it is competent to decide on the questions referred to it vide the Sabarimala review judgment, a controversy concerning the entry of women into a temple located in Kerala. The review judgment (referred to as “Kantaru”) was passed on 14th November, 2019 in pursuance of the decision of the SC in Indian Young Lawyers Assn. v. State of Kerala, which struck down the law prohibiting women to enter into the temple.

The majority in Kantaru, quite interestingly, did not decide upon the review petitions on their merits and kept them pending. Rather they formulated certain questions in relation to the interpretation of Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India (“Constitution”) after discussing two things: firstly, the similarity of the Sabarimala issues with those concerning muslim women, Parsi women, and the practice of female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community; and secondly, it noted that there “seem[ed] to be an apparent conflict” between the decisions of the SC in Durgah Committee and Shirur Mutt. Owing to this, the bench referred these questions, inter alia, pertaining to the interpretation of Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution and the permissible extent of judicial intervention in religious matters.

The Preliminary Question before Nine-Judge Bench 

When a 9JB was constituted to decide upon the questions framed and referred to by majority in Kantaru, it was contended that the reference was not maintainable. One of the contentions asserted by those objecting to the reference was that the reviews were not maintainable under Order XLVII of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 (“SC Rules”). The 9JB rejected this argument and held that Order XLVII of the SC Rules do not limit the power of the court to review its own judgments and orders. In order to arrive at this conclusion, they relied upon an odd interpretation of Order XLVII, Rule 1 of the SC Rules. This article aims to critique this interpretation.

The Court’s Reasoning

Article 137 of the Constitution confers on the SC the power to review its own judgments, and the manner in which the SC exercises its review jurisdiction has been provided under Order XLVII of the SC Rules. Order XLVII Rule 1 reads as follows:

The Court may review its judgment or order, but no application for review will be entertained in a civil proceeding except on the ground mentioned in Order XLVII, rule 1 of the Code, and in a criminal proceeding except on the ground of an error apparent on the face of the record.

The SC noted that the language employed by Order XLVII Rule 1 of the SC Rules was wide enough to not restrict the power of the Court to review its judgments. In order to derive this conclusion, it looked at the disjunctiveness in the rule’s language and held that the phrase “the court may review its judgment or order” and the portion after the ‘comma’, which appears after the said phrase, separates the limitations which the Court is subject to for exercising its review jurisdiction. This essentially meant the phrase “The Court may review its judgment or order” is the rule, and “but no application for review…the face of the record”, in Rule 1, is the exception; and this exception only pertains to civil and criminal proceedings before the SC.

Further, to buttress this stance, the Court observed that writs under Article 32 of the Constitution do not amount to civil or criminal proceedings. The only source of distinction it noted, when distinguishing between writ, civil and criminal proceedings, was that they are governed under different parts within the SC Rules. It observed that:

13. Part II of the Supreme Court Rules deals with Civil Appeals, Criminal Appeals and Special Leave Petitions under Article 136 of the Constitution. Order XXI refers to Special Leave Petitions (Civil) and Order XXII covers Special Leave Petitions (Criminal) proceedings. Petitions filed under Article 32 of the Constitution are dealt with under Order XXXII in Part III of the Supreme Court Rules. Sub-Rule 12 of Order XXXVIII refers to Public Interest Litigation. Admittedly, Writ Petition (Civil) No. 373 of 2006 was filed in public interest. The review petitions arise out of the judgment in the said Writ Petition.

14. Civil proceedings and criminal proceedings dealt with in Part II of the Rules are different from Writ Petitions covered by Part III of the Supreme Court Rules. The exceptions carved out in Order XLVII, Rule 1 of the Supreme Court Rules pertain only to civil and criminal proceedings. Writ Petitions filed under Article 32 of the Constitution of India do not fall within the purview of civil and criminal proceedings…” (emphasis supplied)

 

Accordingly, the SC, by merely tracing its authority to review its judgments, held that the review is maintainable.

The Appraisal

First and foremost, for the SC, the only source of distinction between civil, criminal and writ proceedings seems to be the location of the proceedings within the SC Rules. Let us say, in a hypothetical situation, that civil and writ proceedings were dealt with in the same part of the SC Rules. In that situation, would writ proceedings be the same as civil ones? Upon a closer look of the Order, it seems like the SC distinguished between the three proceedings solely on the basis of positioning of the proceedings within the SC Rules without addressing substantive distinctions.

Further, the SC sidestepped its own decision in Kamlesh Verma v. Mayawati (“Kamlesh”) wherein the Court laid down the summary of principles it is required to follow when entertaining a review petition before it. Thus, if one was to contend for the review jurisdiction to be exercised, the Court ought to see whether such an argument falls within the one of the principles enumerated in Kamlesh.

The principles enumerated in Kamlesh and the interpretation of the Order cannot co-exist, as the latter completely does away with the former and makes it look like a dead letter on a parchment. Simply reasoning that the only limitation before the Court, bizarrely identified by it in the in the rule’s grammar, is in cases of criminal or civil proceedings, bypasses Constitutional and legal principles. Quite woefully, the 9JB observed that “there is no fetter in the exercise of the jurisdiction of this Court in review petitions of judgments or orders arising out of proceedings other than civil and criminal proceedings.” (paragraph 12 of the Order; emphasis supplied).

It is unclear why the SC did not acknowledge, or even pay heed to the principles developed by its past precedents on the exercise of review jurisdiction. The decision of the SC in Kamlesh was directly relevant, as it delved into several of the Court’s past decisions and derived the principles surrounding its powers to exercise review jurisdiction (see paragraphs 12-19 in Kamlesh) In fact, the minority in Kantaru strictly conformed to the principles enumerated in Kamlesh when dismissing the review petitions before it. Thus, the Order has not only created conceptual friction in relation to established principles of the Court’s exercise of review jurisdiction, but also is an example of how the institution fails to conform to, or even acknowledge, its own decisions.

Additionally, the SC initially held that it has no fetter on the powers to review its own decisions in relation to any proceedings except those relating to civil or criminal, and then distinguished only between writ, civil and criminal proceedings. What about, for instance, Presidential references under Article 143? Are they amenable to the unfetteringly exercisable review jurisdiction too, or are they civil proceedings? In the future, if a different set of judges feel differently about a certain decision, for personal or political reasons, and admit the matter for review, if and when contended before them in relation to such a Presidential reference then the judges need not even provide adequate reasons when exercising review jurisdiction in any proceedings other than civil or criminal ones. Such a lose interpretation even casts doubt on whether the SC actually aimed to provide adequate reasons in the present Order, or merely engage in a formality.

The SC, further, conferred on itself unlimited powers review any of its decisions – other and those relating to civil and criminal proceedings – without laying down adequate determining principles of exercising it whilst side-lining pre-established determining principles on exercising review jurisdiction. The Order seems to have opened the pandora’s box for the SC to exercise review jurisdiction on its whims and fancies without auditing accountability to any legal principles. This is very troubling, since the SC has, historically, disdained entertaining review petitions, often referring to them as a “serious step and [a] reluctant resort”.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, a judicial institution reviewing its own decision somewhere demeans their credibility of its own judges’ wisdom. Procedurally relaxing the power to do so begs the question as to whether the SC sees this issue the same way.


  • The author expresses his gratitude to Rupam Jha for her inputs on this essay.

Reference in Review: A Response

[Editor’s Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]


[This is a Guest Post by Shivendra Singh.]


Background

An unexpected turn of events has led to the formulation of a preliminary question of law before the nine-judge Bench in Court No.1 of the Supreme Court of India. The issue formulated by the Hon’ble Court for adjudication is: “Whether this Court can refer questions of law to a larger Bench in a Review Petition”? Mr. Fali Nariman, Senior Advocate has essentially doubted the competence of a Bench hearing a Review Petition to refer questions of law to a larger Bench.

Scope of the Post

At the outset, I must clarify that this short article is being written as a response to Gautam’s post and I wish to express no opinion on the merits of the matter. This article is restricted only to the preliminary question before the Court on 6.2.2020 – which has now been answered in the affirmative.

Source of Review Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court

One of the issues that has arisen is the applicability of Order VI, Rule 2 of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 (the “Supreme Court Rules”) to review petitions. The substantive source of the creation of the review jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is not to be traced to the Supreme Court Rules but Article 137 of the Constitution of India which reads as under:

“137. Review of judgments or orders by the Supreme Court- Subject to the provisions of any law made by Parliament, or any rules made under article 145, the Supreme Court shall have power to review any judgment pronounced or order made by it”.

In fact, Article 145(1)(e) of the Constitution specifically provides as under:

“145. Rules of Court, etc.- 145. (1) Subject to the provisions of any law made by Parliament, the Supreme Court may from time to time, with the approval of the President, make rules for regulating generally the practice and procedure of the Court including—

……

(e) rules as to the conditions subject to which any judgment pronounced or order made by the Court may be reviewed and the procedure for such review including the time within which applications to the Court for such review are to be entered.”

Interpretation of Order VI, Rule 2 of the Supreme Court Rules

One must look at Order XLVII of the Supreme Court Rules against the substantive backdrop of Article 137 read with Article 145(1)(e) of the Constitution. Order XLVII of the Supreme Court Rules is neatly divided into five sub-rules. Now the question is whether Order VI of the Supreme Court Rules which is titled ‘Constitution of Division Courts and Powers of a Single Judge’ would be applicable to Order XLVII of the Supreme Court Rules. Order VI, Rule 2 of the Supreme Court Rules reads as under:

“Where in the course of the hearing of any cause, appeal or other proceeding, the Bench considers that the matter should be dealt with by a larger Bench, it shall refer the matter to the Chief Justice, who shall thereupon constitute such a Bench for the hearing for it”.

The amplitude of the words ‘any cause’, ‘appeal’ or ‘other proceeding’ in Order VI, Rule 2 of the Supreme Court Rules is certainly wide enough to include review petitions under Order XLVII. Any other interpretation will not only be against the settled cannon of statutory interpretation that the rules in a subordinate legislation should be read holistically, but will also amount to imposing an artificial restriction on the untrammelled jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to refer matters of substantial public importance to a larger bench while considering review petitions under Order XLVII.

Prior Instance of Reference to a Larger Bench in Review Jurisdiction

Even otherwise, there has been at least one instance of the Supreme Court actually referring a question of law to a larger Bench/Constitution Bench in exercise of its review jurisdiction. I urge the readers to go through the judgment in Behram Khurshed Pesikaka v. The State of Bombay reported in [1955] 1 SCR 613 which was an appeal by special leave from a judgment of the Bombay High Court reversing the order of acquittal passed in favour of the appellant Behram Khurshed Pesikaka by the Trial Court, and, convicting him of an offence under section 66(b) of the Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949, and sentencing him to one month’s rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 500. A Bench of three learned judges heard the Special Leave Petition and dismissed it on 19.2.1954 by a majority of 2:1 (separate majority opinions of Justices Jagannadhadas and Venkatarama Ayyar). Justice Bhagwati, who dissented, allowed the appeal and acquitted the appellant Pesikaka. The majority judges, while maintaining the conviction, were pleased to reduce the sentence imposed upon Pesikaka to that already undergone by him. Being aggrieved, Pesikaka filed an application for review under Article 137 of the Constitution and Justice Bhagwati passed the following order on 28.4.1954 for the same Bench:

“58. We grant the review and reopen the case to enable us to obtain the opinion of a larger Bench on the constitutional question raised in the judgments previously delivered by us. Under proviso to article 145 of the Constitution, we refer the following question for the opinion of the Constitution Bench of the Court.

“What is the effect of the declaration in The State of Bombay and Another v. F. N. Balsara ([1951] S.C.R. 682) that clause (b) of section 13 of the Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949, is void, under article 13(1) of the Constitution, in so far as it affects the consumption or use of liquid medicinal or toilet preparation containing alcohol, on the ground that it infringes article 19(1)(f) of the Constitution?”

59. On receipt of the opinion the case will be taken up for further consideration.”

 

On 23.9.1954, the Constitution Bench gave its opinion on the referred question and on the very next day, the original Bench quashed the conviction of the appellant Pesikaka. It is also important to point out that the original Bench did not identify any error apparent on the face of the record or any other patent error to review its final order 19.2.1954. The tables were turned in favour of Pesikaka only because of the reference to the Constitution Bench, and the favourable opinion rendered by it on the question.

To conclude, there is no reason to hold that the Supreme Court cannot refer questions of law to a larger Bench in a review petition.

The Afterlife of the Sabarimala Review: On the “Preliminary Question” before the Nine-Judge Bench

On this blog, I have previously discussed – and criticised – the “review” judgment in the Sabarimala case, as well as the Supreme Court’s subsequent actions in constituting a nine-judge bench to address some of the questions that arose out of that judgment. Earlier this week, during the course of oral argument, senior counsel brought up some of these issues – pointing out, in particular, that the five-judge bench could not, in the course of a review order, have “referred” legal questions to a larger bench. As a result, the nine-judge bench framed a “preliminary question”, which will be heard tomorrow: “whether this Court can refer questions of law to a larger bench in a review petition?”

Facts and Norms

This week’s hearing itself revealed two issues with the original “review” judgment, that we can take in turn. The first is the speculative character of the questions themselves, which go against the grain of how constitutional adjudication should normally happen. Doctrines of law evolve out of specific factual situations before the Court, and not out of abstract abstract philosophical enquiry. This is because, ultimately, doctrine has to be responsive to the wide range of factual disputes that could – and do – come up before the Court. In such a situation, a Court that deals in abstraction will inevitably create one of two undesirable situations: either it would have framed doctrine in such abstract terms, that it will be of no use in hearing and deciding the case before it; or it would have framed it in such concrete terms, that it would tie the hands of future benches in adapting doctrine to fit the peculiar facts that are before it in any given case.

To take the example of this case, the “referred” questions – that are about the intersection between religious freedom and gender equality – exist in a domain where there are a bewildering variety of social and religious practices. Take, for example, the religious practice of madesnana, that Suhrith and I discussed here (it is not about gender equality, but raises substantively similar questions); it should be obvious that practices of this kind are so particular and specific in character, that constitutional doctrine can only make sense if it flows from a careful consideration of the legal issues that they present, rather than first laying down abstract law, and seeing which side madesnana falls. In fact, in Sabarimala itself – as I have previously discussed – there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the majority opinions and Malhotra J.’s dissent on the correct legal test – both sets of judgments agreed that religious practices that were oppressive or harmful to human dignity would fail the test of constitutionality. The only disagreement was whether in the specific facts of the Sabarimala case, the disputed practice fell within that definition or not. And that is exactly how adjudication should normally proceed.

In this context, the Chief Justice’s comment in Court – that the reason for this nine-judge bench hearing was that “these issues will arise again and again, resulting in a reference” – is an important one. Because that is precisely why, in fact, this nine-judge bench should not be hearing this case. The very fact that “these issues” (i.e., the interplay between women’s right to equality and religious freedom) will arise again and again is the reason that they should be decided as they arise, because the issues that they present to the Court will be layered, nuanced, and will require sensitive adjudication that is cognisant of those nuances. And as they arise, the judges who deal with them will – in the normal course of things – engage with existing precedent; they may agree with that precedent, they may disagree with it but nonetheless – exercising judicial discipline – follow it, or – if they think it is too wrong to follow – refer the issue for reconsideration. Once again, it is important to emphasise that this is how constitutional adjudication happens in the normal course of things, and that is entirely fit and appropriate: the law develops incrementally, responsive to facts, and gives judges the flexibility and the scope to modify, adapt, or alter doctrine as time goes by. It is that crucial flexibility – the hallmark of constitutional adjudication – that will be threatened if a practice of settling abstract questions in advance of concrete cases takes root in the Court.

Jurisdiction

While the first issue is one of desirability – i.e., that the Court should not decide these questions sitting as a nine-judge bench – there was, of course, a deeper issue raised by counsel in this week’s hearing: that the review judgment could not have “referred” legal questions to a larger bench. As discussed previously on this blog, that issue stems from the limited character of review jurisdiction, which is confined to checking if the original judgment suffered from an “error on the face of the record.”

It was contended by the Solicitor-General, in response, that Order VI(2) of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013, states that: “Where in the course of the hearing of any cause, appeal or other proceeding, the Bench considers that the matter should be dealt with by a larger Bench, it shall refer the matter to the Chief Justice, who shall thereupon constitute such a Bench for the hearing of it.” The argument, thus, is that the phrase “any cause, appeal or other proceeding” includes proceedings in review.

To understand why this argument is flawed, we need to go back to the basics. How – and why – does a referral happen in the normal course of things? It happens when, while hearing a case, it is brought to the judges’ attention that there is a legal issue – most often, a conflict – that has a bearing upon the case, which they cannot resolve, and which only a larger bench can resolve (because – presumably – the bench hearing the case is of too small a size). The issue of referral, therefore, is bound up with the process of deciding a case.

review, on the other hand, takes place after the case has been decided. And at that point, the bench is no longer considering what the legal answer to the case before it is. What it is considering is whether the reasoning that led to the decision was so fundamentally flawed, in some manner that is present “on the face of the record” (and therefore, by implication, requires no “interpretation”), that it simply cannot stand.

The distinction is crucial, because it demonstrates how the reasoning process that (potentially) leads to a referral, and the reasoning process that leads to a review, are fundamentally different – and that, by definition, the latter excludes the former. Because it is critically important to recall that a Review is not a “re-hearing” of the original case. If it was, then of course, all arguments in a hearing would be open to be re-litigated in Review. A Review is limited to a situation where the error is on the face of the record, i.e., so obvious that there can be no two ways about it. But an argument for referral always – and by definition – has two ways about it: the existing doctrine – which binds the bench hearing the case – and the interpretation that the bench may be persuaded to accept, but cannot, and is therefore referring the issue to a larger bench to decide.

Consequently, even if the Review bench believes that the original judgment answered the legal question before it incorrectly, that is not a ground for it to reopen the question; the only ground is a finding that there is an “error on the face of the record” in the original judgment (which, as we have seen, the Sabarimala Review order did not even attempt to demonstrate).

While this distinction may appear pedantic, it is of vital importance in a judicial system bound to the rule of law and the doctrine of precedent. A fundamental building block of this system is the importance of consistency in precedent. So, while the Court can always revisit – and overrule – its previous judgments, there exists a set procedure for doing so, which acts to ensure that such decisions are not taken lightly. So, in the normal course of things, if there is a five-judge bench decision holding “X”, then for it to be overruled, petitioners would have to (a) convince a two-judge bench to admit a case arguing for interpretation “Y”; (b) in a referral hearing – which can be opposed by the other side – convince the two-judge bench to refer it to a three-judge bench; (c) convince the three-judge bench to refer it to a five-judge bench; (d) convince the five-judge bench to refer it to a seven-judge bench; (e) convince the seven-judge bench to overrule the original decision. These hoops exist for the simple reason that without them, the law would be in a perpetual state of unsettled chaos, where individual judges would be perpetually at odds with one another, tugging at the law in different directions.

What the Sabarimala Review order did, on the other hand, was to short-circuit this entire process, and effectively sanction a “Sabarimala Round 2” without going through the inbuilt checks and balances that the legal system provides. This is presumably what Mr. Fali Nariman meant in Court when he said that it would set a “bad precedent”, and this is also why Order VI(2) of the Supreme Court Rules ought not to extend to hearings in Review: what it would then sanction, going forward, would indeed be a situation where Review hearings would become a “Round 2” – where speculative legal questions could be raised even after the original case had been decided – and thus seriously undermine the sanctity of precedent.

Conclusion

As discussed previously, the issues at present are no longer about the merits of the original Sabarimala judgment. They are about something deeper, and more institutional: in a poly-vocal Court of thirty-five judges, where the Office of the Chief Justice wields tremendous administrative power in selections of cases and benches, how do we ensure that the Court remains a coherent institution, and does not break down into competing factions? The present institutional structure of the Court – with its number of judges and small panels – makes judicial discipline and adherence to conventions around precedent even more crucial than in a more traditional Court (such as the US or South African apex Courts) that sits en banc, and speaks as one. From that perspective, the nine-judge bench has an onerous responsibility to discharge when it hears the preliminary question tomorrow.