Legislative competence of Delhi Government to amend Court Fee Act

Scope of Legislative Competence of Delhi Government under NCT of Delhi Act

Delhi legislature is a subordinate legislature which draws its powers from Government of NCT of Delhi Act of 1991. Practically its powers are truncated to a vast extent.

A batch of petitions challenged the constitutionality and validity of the Court Fees (Delhi Amendment) Act, 2012 ―Delhi Act 11 of 2012 before Delhi High Court whereby the Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi had amended the Court Fees Act, 1870 in force in the National Capital Territory of Delhi.

The argument against the amendments to the Court Fees Act 1870, which is a Central legislation, by the Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi was that it is unconstitutional, arbitrary and ultra vires on account of lack of legislative competence, Government supported the view that the Legislative Assembly of Delhi has the competence to amend the Central Act as the power to legislate on the subject of fees taken in all courts, except the Supreme Court, vests exclusively in the State Legislature, vide Entry 3 of List II. Delhi High Court accepted the challenge on these grounds:

Court Fees (Delhi Amendment) Act, 2012 is invalid being beyond legislative competence:

I. Article 239AA of the Constitution of India does not empower the Delhi Legislative Assembly to effect amendment of the Court Fees Act, 1870, a Central legislation.

Repugnance with Central Legislation:

II. Even if it could be held that the Delhi Legislative Assembly had the legislative competence to legislate on the subject, the respondents have failed to abide by the legislative procedure constitutionally mandated. The respondents neither complied with the established essential preconditions for the Presidential consideration and assent under Article 239AA of the Constitution nor invited the Presidential attention to the repugnancy between the Central enactment and the proposed legislative amendment.

No justification for enhanced Court fee:

III. The State has failed to discharge the onus which rested on it to justify the increase in the court fee. No material has been placed on record to justify the exorbitant increase in the levy of court fees in most instances. It is not the respondents’ plea that there is any deficit in the available funds for incurring the cost of administration of justice. By the impugned legislation, the respondents have created unreasonably two well defined classes of litigants – one, who will be required to pay fixed court fees and secondly, the respondents have introduced a second class of litigants who will be required to pay court fees equivalent to a fixed percentage based on the valuation of the litigation, that is, court fee on ad valorem basis, without a maximum limit. The levy has a  discriminatory impact on the litigants; the same is based on no intelligible differentia and is constitutionally impermissible classification. The impugned legislation, therefore, is ex facie substantively unreasonable, arbitrary and ultra vires Article 14 of the Constitution. The court fee levy has a disproportionate gender impact as well and is not sustainable for this reason.

Absence of quid pro quo:

IV. The imposition of the court fee by percentage without a maximum limit is unrelated to the cost of any service rendered. The ad valorem levy of court fee after a particular level, loses all elements of quid pro quo and, therefore, loses the characteristics of a fee’. It thus tantamounts to recovery of amounts towards general revenue under the guise of court fees and, therefore, partakes all characteristics of a tax’ which is beyond the legislative competence of the Delhi Legislative Assembly.

Right to justice:

V. The Court Fees (Delhi Amendment) Act, 2012 disproportionately impacts the fundamental right of access to justice under Article 21 of the Constitution of India and has a deleterious impact on litigation in courts. It results in violation of the obligations of the State to ensure an effective and efficient system for administration of justice. It is an absolute entry point financial barrier to the courts for not only those who are below the poverty line but also those on the ‘border line’ who are barely meeting the essentials of daily needs (that is, such persons who would not meet the forma pauperis definition disentitling them to court fee waivers and exemptions). The impugned legislation results in denial of equality before the law to parties to a proceeding as it results in unequal opportunity of access to court to persons placed in different economic categories. The Court Fees (Delhi Amendment) Act, 2012 is unconstitutional as it adversely impacts the Part III rights as well as violates the Directive Principles of State Policy under Article 38 and 39A of the Constitution.
VI. The impugned legislation adversely impacts the rule making power of the Delhi High Court as well as its jurisdiction.
VII. The respondents have failed to comply with the procedure prescribed under the Government of NCT of Delhi Act, 1991 and the National Capital Territory of Delhi (Transaction of Business) Rules, 1993.

See: Delhi High Court Bar v.  Govt. of NCT of Delhi (2013)