Instances wherein a Bench of coordinate strength differs from decisions of earlier Coordinate Benches often necessitate a close scrutiny of the law of precedent. Further, these situations require the exploration of whether the well-settled principle that the decision of a Court is binding upon Courts of coordinate strength is subject to the exception of precedents being distinguished on facts.
One such instance can be traced to a string of seven judgments of the High Court at Calcutta on the issue of maintainability of writ petitions against M/s. Andrew Yule Co. Ltd. (hereinafter referred to as ‘said company’) vis-à-vis Article 12 of the Constitution of India. In the following paragraphs, the author has made an endeavour to survey the decisions rendered on the issue of maintainability of writ petitions against the said company and explore the law of precedent.
A Chronological Study of the Judgements Delivered by the High Court at Calcutta:
At the outset, reference must be made to the judgment delivered by a Single Bench of the High Court at Calcutta in the case of Anupam Ghosh v. Union of India (1987). In the said judgment, the Court, upon a detailed examination of various authorities on the score of Article 12, held that merely because the Government has obtained majority share-holding in the said company, the same cannot be regarded to be an instrumentality of State under Article 12 and as such, a writ petition directed against the said company would not be maintainable. Thereafter, an intra-court appeal was preferred against the judgment. The said appeal was turned down by the division Bench (1990) and the decision rendered by the Single Bench was upheld.
The self-same issue of maintainability was once again, deliberated upon by a Division Bench in the case of Movewell Griha Nirman Ltd. v. Andrew Yule Co. Ltd (2008) when an appeal was filed against refusal of a Single Bench to entertain a writ petition against the said company. The Division Bench held that the pleadings put forth by the appellants failed to evince any plausible reason for disagreeing with the decision of the Single Bench and that of the earlier Division Bench in the case of Anupam Ghosh (supra).
The controversy of whether the said company is ‘State’ under Article 12 arose afresh in the case of Andrew Yule Head Office Retired Employees Association v. Union of India & Anr (2019). In this case, the Single Judge found force and credence in the arguments advanced by the learned advocate representing the petitioner association, in support of the proposition that Andrew Yule Co. Ltd. must be regarded as an instrumentality of the State, thereby falling within the scope of Article 12 of the Constitution of India. It was recorded in the judgment of the Single Judge that the Court would have arrived at a finding in favour of the petitioners but being bound by the earlier division Bench decisions in the case of Anupam Ghosh (supra) and Movewell Griha Nirman (supra), the Court was compelled to dismiss the writ petition on grounds of maintainability. The said judgment was subsequently upheld in appeal by a Division Bench by an order dated 5th August, 2019.
Thereafter, a Review Petition was preferred against the order dated 5th August, 2019. The Bench presiding over the Review Petition held that the Division Bench had not taken into consideration, the changed factual scenario appurtenant to the administration of the said company despite express observations of the Single Judge in that regard. Further, upon a detailed examination of the decisions on the subject of Article 12 of the Constitution and applying the principles enunciated therein to inter alia, the control exercised by the Government over the day to day administration of the said company, the Court ultimately opined that the said company in fact, is an instrumentality of the State under Article 12.
Judicial Discipline v/s Departure from Precedent due to change in Factual Circumstances – An Analysis:
Normally, as observed by the Supreme Court in the case of State of Punjab v. Devans Modern Breweries Ltd. & Anr (2003), judicial discipline would require a Coordinate Bench to follow the decision of an earlier Coordinate Bench and in the event of disagreement, the matter can only be referred to a Larger Bench. Further, the Supreme Court has also held that a Coordinate Bench cannot even comment upon, let alone sit in judgment over the discretion exercised or judgment rendered in a similar cause or matter before another Coordinate Bench. In view thereof, one could reasonably argue that the Division bench presiding over the Review Petition should have referred the issue concerning maintainability of writ petition against the said company to a Larger Bench. However, such prohibition, it is felt, is not absolute.
At this juncture, it would be important to advert to a decision rendered by the High Court at Bombay in the case of Gaur Pratibha v. State of Maharashtra (2019). Upon considering numerous authorities on what may be considered as a binding precedent, held that the ‘case-holding’, which emerges from the application of principles of law to the facts of a case, is of a binding nature and must not be deviated from, under any circumstance. In other words, a holding is what the Court decides after combining the facts of a case with the legal principles applicable to those facts. In view thereof, it could be argued that the ‘case-holding’ that emerges from the decisions rendered in Anupam Ghosh (supra) and Movewell Griha Nirman (supra), was a result of the application of the principles of law governing determination of a body as an instrumentality of State under Article 12, to the facts appurtenant to the adjudication. As recorded in the order dated 20th July, 2021, facts concerning the degree of State control over administration of the company had undergone a sea-change. As such, one might say that the case-holdings of the two earlier Division Benches had become vulnerable in light of the sweeping changes introduced in the degree of control exerted by the State over the day-to-day administration of the said company. Such reasoning seems more than acceptable especially when it is well-settled that words in a judgment must not be treated as they are words in a legislative enactment and that one additional or different fact may make a world of difference between conclusions in two cases.
Considering the importance accorded to the interlocking of facts and principles of law in the crystallisation of precedent/holding, it appears that a Coordinate Bench could be permitted to reach a conclusion different from that of another Coordinate Bench in light of the change in factual circumstances. Such assertion however, seems to be at variance with the Supreme Court’s dictum that if a Coordinate Bench disagrees with another Bench of coordinate jurisdiction whether on the basis of different arguments or otherwise, on a question of law, referring the matter to a Larger Bench for resolution is the appropriate course of action. The word otherwise ought not to be deemed to include changes in facts, lest an imbalance would emanate between the permissibility to differ with a previous judgment pronounced by a Coordinate Bench when factual differences require a different treatment and the considerations of adhering to the strict postulates of judicial discipline requiring reference of a matter to a Larger Bench for resolution of a question of law. It is not clear as to whether Courts, as a general rule can be allowed to embark on an endeavour to weigh the afore-mentioned considerations against each other and proceed in a manner deemed fit or should they adhere to the strict norm of referring the matter to a larger Bench in case of disagreement.
In view of the foregoing discussion, it is asserted that the allowance granted to Courts to distinguish a precedent upon a thorough examination of facts, would be reduced to a nullity if the consideration of consistency in judicial decision-making is viewed as an absolute bar against such allowance. Further, when a Coordinate Bench reaches a decision different from that of an earlier coordinate Bench upon examination of facts appurtenant to the matter before it, the said decision should not be viewed as a conflicting decision, even if it is in respect of a similar question of law. In other words, the bar against forming of an opinion by a Coordinate Bench contrary to that of an earlier Coordinate Bench can only set in, if the factual circumstances in the respective cases are similar, devoid of any major distinction. Such distinction, however, should not be merely cosmetic in nature and must be such that the well-settled principles enunciated in respect of the legal controversy, if applied to the changed factual circumstances would necessarily lead to a different conclusion.
Coming back to the context of the judicial decisions on the issue pertaining to the maintainability of writ petition against the said company, it is asserted that decision of the Division Bench in the Review Petition has been reached on an appreciation of certain factual changes, seminal to the adjudication of the question of law. As such, the holding of the said Division Bench has been arrived at, upon distinguishing the decisions of the earlier division Benches on facts and cannot be said to be in conflict with the same. Hence, it is opined that the judgment of the Division Bench presiding over the Review Petition, should be allowed to operate and be regarded as the correct law until the same becomes vulnerable with time or is subsequently overruled by a Bench of higher hierarchical jurisdiction.
Therefore, finally, it is stated that even though judicial propriety demands consistency in decision-making, adherence to precedent should generally be subject to the factual matrix of each case and that the same shall, under no circumstance, be allowed to lead to the stultification of legal evolution. Between the Court’s duty to adhere to precedents and the Court’s liberty to depart from earlier decisions, the same being distinguished on facts, a reasonable balance must be struck by the Courts at all times.
(This post has been authored by Atreya Chakraborty, a fifth year law student at the Department of Law, University of Calcutta.)