PRINCIPLES OF NATURAL JUSTICE IN THE MANEKA GANDHI JUDGMENT
Author: Parv Birla, 4th Year B.A.,LLB from the Jindal Global Law School.
Justice Bhagwati in Maneka case, offered an expansive reading of Fundamental Rights to include the principles of natural justice. He interpreted the principles of natural justice as being embodied in the constitution by virtue of reading Article 14 and 19 together. As a consequence of this, it is can generally be construed that any order either administrative or quasi-legislative shall be struck down in case it violated the substantive test. An implication of this would be that such order can be declared void by the courts. However as seen in this case, the majority refrained from declaring the order as void even though it was of the opinion that the there was a violation of audi alteram partem. It was because the government offered for a post-decisional hearing which convinced the court that the defect of violation of audi alteram partem can be adequately cured. It not difficult to understand why the court did not quash the order of the government. If it did quash the order, the petitioner would have got the passport back and this would have defeated the purpose of the government’s impounding of the passport in light of ‘public interest’ in the first place. The court struck a balance between principles of natural justice as well as the powers of the administrative body without compromising either of them by allowing a post decisional hearing.
The acceptance of post decisional hearing as a valid defense for breach of the principles of natural justice, immediately raises a question- can a breach of natural justice by the administrative bodies be rectified every time by offering a post decisional hearing to the person affected? The answer is simply no, the court was weary of post decisional hearings, it was of the opinion that only under exceptional circumstances can post decisional hearing be allowed as a substitute for pre-decisional hearing. Interestingly it can be said in a way that the court by mapping the principles of natural justice in fundamental rights has bound the government which is the sovereign power with some restrictions contrary to Dicey’s idea of the sovereign. One immediate question that may intrigue natural law thinkers is the Supreme Court’s understanding of principles of natural justice as being embodied by fundamental rights. The word ‘natural’ has connotation of being something guaranteed to every human being irrespective if there is any positive law or not. However, the court’s understanding of principles of ‘natural’ justice as part of fundamental rights has placed these principles under the realm of positive law. Now it is up to the judiciary as well as the state in some sense, which shall decide how to interpret and uphold these principles, bringing in more subjectivity.
Justice Bhagwati gave a very sound judgment with excellent reasoning. An ordinary judgment in light of facts similar to Maneka could have been simply that the situation (as in an urgency) warranted for the principle of audi alteram partem to not be followed and therefore Mrs. Gandhi’s passport was rightfully ordered to surrender her passport in ‘public interest’. But Justice Bhagwati understanding that the ‘court should make every possible effort to salvage this cardinal rule to maximum extent permissible in any given case’, withheld the rights of the petitioner. Interestingly, this observation by the court puts an indirect obligation on the administrative authority to think of considerations like urgency, necessity, severity etc., before giving out its order which might interfere with the principles of natural justice even if the statute under which such administrative authority is bound by does not explicitly provide for such considerations.
Interestingly the court was gave powers to itself to direct the administrative authority to do something which isn’t explicitly given in the statute. This has been made possible by the court’s application constitutional law provisions to decide on jurisprudence/questions related to administrative law. But extrapolating constitutional law in administrative law has a risk of creating jurisprudential inconsistencies. An example of this is reflected in the judgment. The judgment let go off differences between an administrative act and a quasi-judicial one. Because of the lack of distinction between the two, the Supreme Court has put a humongous pressure on themselves to listen to an administrative order by way of writ jurisdiction, thereby mixing the administrative and constitutional law together. Moreover, the various courts in India such as High Court, Lower Courts, Administrative Courts will now look into the questions of natural justice through the lens of ‘right’ as formulated in the constitution without equally focusing on administrative law principles while dealing with such cases. Though the judgment seems to be revelation in Indian jurisprudence but at the same time it has left a room for different interpretations which should have ideally been answered by the court.