Doctrine of Stare Decisis in India

Application of principle of Binding Precedent on court of record.

A court of record is bound to follow its own record i.e. its previous decision on the subject. But how far this principle can go? Can a court not change it’s view even if it is erroneous or has become perverse in the course of time?

In England, the Court of Appeal has imposed upon its power of review of earlier precedents a limitation, subject to certain exceptions. The limitation thus accepted is that it is bound to follow its own decisions and those of courts of Co-ordinate jurisdiction, and the “full” Court is in the same position in this respect as a division Court consisting of three members. The only exceptions to this rule are: (1) the Court is entitled and bound to decide which of the two conflicting decisions of its own it will follow; (2) the Court is bound to refuse to follow a decision of its own which, though not expressly overruled, cannot, in its opinion stand with a decision of the House of Lords; and (3) the Court is not bound to follow a decision of its own, if it is satisfied that the decision was given per incuriam, e.g., where a Statute or a rule having statutory effect which would have affected the decision was not brought to the attention of the earlier Court.

Supreme Court of India in it’s the first recorded instance being called upon to consider whether it could overrule an earlier decision rendered by it. After referring to Doctrine of Stare Decisis and English laws leaning in favour of Doctrine and practice of USA Supreme Courts in American law on the subject, it ruled:

“In considering the applicability of the principles laid down in the decisions here in before mentioned, it should be borne in mind that the English decisions may well have been influenced by considerations which can no longer apply to the circumstances prevailing in India. The error, if any, of the Court of Appeal in England, may be corrected by the House of Lords or eventually by Parliament by a simple majority. The mistakes, if any, made by the High Court of Australia, if not corrected by itself in a subsequent case, could be set right by the Privy Council when appeals were taken there or by the appropriate legislative authority. An error made by the House of Lords or the Privy Council can easily be rectified by Parliament by a simple majority by an amending statute. But in a country governed by a federal constitution, such as the United States of America and the Union of India are, it is by no means easy to amend the Constitution if an erroneous interpretation is put upon it by this Court. (See article 368 of our Constitution). An erroneous interpretation of the Constitution’ may quite conceivably be perpetuated or may at any rate remain unrectified for a considerable time to the great detriment to public well being. The considerations adverted to in the decisions of the Supreme Court of America quoted above are, therefore, apposite and apply in full force in determining whether a previous decision of this Court should or should not be disregarded or overruled. There is nothing in our Constitution which prevents us from departing from a previous decision if we are convinced of its error and its baneful effect on the general interests of the public. Article 141 which lays down that the law declared by this Court shall be binding on all Courts within the territory of India quite obviously refers to Courts other than this Court.” (Bold supplied)

[Source: The Bengal Immunity Company Limited v. The State of Bihar ]

What then should be the position in regard to the effect of the law pronounced by a Division Bench in relation to a case raising the same point subsequently before a Division Bench of a smaller number of Judges?

There is no constitutional or statutory prescription in the matter, and the point is governed entirely by the practice in India of the Courts sanctified by repeated affirmation over a century of time. It cannot be doubted that in order to promote consistency and certainty in the law laid down by a superior Court, the ideal condition would be that the entire Court should sit in all cases to decide questions of law, and for that reason the Supreme Court of the United States does so. But having regard to the volume of work demanding the attention of the Court, it has been found necessary in India as a general rule of practice and convenience that the Court should sit in Divisions, each Division being constituted of Judges whose number may be determined by the exigencies of judicial need, by the nature of the case including any statutory mandate relative there- to, and by such other considerations which the Chief Justice, in whom such authority devolves by convention, may find most appropriate. It is in order to guard against the possibility of inconsistent decisions on points of law by different Division Benches that the rule has been evolved, in order to promote consistency and certainty in the development of the law and its contemporary status, that the statement of the law by a Division Bench is considered binding on a Division Bench of the same or lesser number of Judges. This principle has been followed in India by several generations of Judges.

[Source: Union of India vs Raghubir Singh, 1989 (2) SCC 754]

It cannot be overemphasised that the discipline demanded by a precedent or the disqualification or diminution of a decision on the application of the per incuriam rule is of great importance, since without it, certainty of law, consistency of rulings and comity of Courts would become a costly casualty. A decision or judgment can be per incuriam any provision in a statute, rule or regulation, which was not brought to the notice of the Court. A decision or judgment can also be per incuriam if it is not possible to reconcile its ratio with that of a previously pronounced judgment of a Co-equal or Larger Bench; or if the decision of a High Court is not in consonance with the views of this Court. It must immediately be clarified that the per incuriam rule is strictly and correctly applicable to the ratio decidendi and not to obiter dicta. It is often encountered in High Courts that two or more mutually irreconcilable decisions of the Supreme Court are cited at the Bar. We think that the inviolable recourse is to apply the earliest view as the succeeding ones would fall in the category of per incuriam.

[Source: Sundeep Kumar Bafna vs. State of Maharashtra, decided by SC on 27 March 2014.]

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