Escheat: Forum for adjudication of claim

Escheat: Intestate death resulting in vesting of property in Government.

Collector taking over the property u/s. Section 29 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956. No recourse made to Administrator General Act, 1963. No adjudication of facts by a Judicial Forum. Validity of.

Section 29 in The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 is as under:

29 Failure of heirs .—If an intestate has left no heir qualified to succeed to his or her property in accordance with the provisions of this Act, such property shall devolve on the government; and the government shall take the property subject to all the obligations and liabilities to which an heir would have been subject.

Section 29, it may be noted, embodies a principle but does not provide a procedural mechanism for adjudication upon disputed questions. The canvas of the controversy before the Court is an abundant indication of matters which were seriously in dispute. The contention of the state that the property would devolve upon it as a result of Mohan Lal being presumed to be dead and having left behind no legal heir is seriously in question. Such a matter could not have been adjudicated upon by the Collector by assuming to himself a jurisdiction which is not conferred upon him by law.

The principle that the law does not readily accept a claim to escheat and that the onus rests heavily on the person who asserts that an individual has died intestate, leaving no legal heir, qualified to succeed to the property, is founded on a sound rationale. Escheat is a doctrine which recognises the state as a paramount sovereign in whom property would vest only upon a clear and established case of a failure of heirs. This principle is based on the norm that in a society governed by the rule of law, the court will not presume that private titles are overridden in favour of the state, in the absence of a clear case being made out on the basis of a governing statutory provision. To allow administrative authorities of the state – including the Collector, as in the present case – to adjudicate upon matters of tittle involving civil disputes would be destructive of the rule of law. The Collector is an officer of the state. He can exercise only such powers as the law specifically confers upon him to enter upon private disputes. In contrast, a civil court has the jurisdiction to adjudicate upon all matters involving civil disputes except where the jurisdiction of the court is taken away, either expressly or by necessary implication, by statute. In holding that the Collector acted without jurisdiction in the present case, it is not necessary for the court to go as far as to validate the title which is claimed by the petitioner to the property. The court is not called upon to decide whether the possession claimed by the trust of over forty-five years is backed by a credible title. The essential point is that such an adjudicatory function could not have been arrogated to himself by the Collector. Adjudication on titles must follow recourse to the ordinary civil jurisdiction of a court of competent jurisdiction under Section 9 of the Code of Civil Procedure 1908.

Source: Kutchi Lal Rameshwar Ashram Trust vs Collector, Haridwar, decided by SC on 22 September, 2017]

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