HomeLegal Columns“Principles of Natural Justice- Rule Against Bias” – I I

“Principles of Natural Justice- Rule Against Bias” – I I

1. Evolution in The Indian Context

One of the earliest instances in which the issue of bias was taken up by the Apex Court was in Manak Lal v. Dr. Prem Chand[1]. The legitimacy of tribunal’s award punishing the appellant for professional misconduct was the issue involved here. The appellant alleged that the tribunal was biased on account of the chairman having served as the counsel for the respondent at an earlier stage of the same case. Taking inspiration and help from the English courts and their decisions, the reasonable suspicion test was given birth. No explicit mention of the term ‘reasonable suspicion’ was present, however, the pattern of reasoning adopted by the court was clearly a mirage of the two faceted reasonable suspicion test namely, where the court was to determine whether under a given set of circumstances “there is a reasonable ground for assuming the possibility of a bias” better known as the ‘view point test’, and whether the assumptions “is likely to produce in the minds of the litigant, or the public at large a reasonable doubt about the fairness of the administration of justice”.

Manak Lal’s decision, on hindsight failed when its impotency in its treatment of the subject matter; in its omission to clarify the meaning and scope of the “test” that it was relying upon was brought to the fore. Imitating also needs sound judgment and the court although, for the most part tried importing foreign ideas, it turned a blind eye towards understanding the context within which such ideas were born. For starters, the decision shows an incorrigible level of indifference shown towards the historical analysis and the evolution of the law of bias in England, which perhaps might have given a better context and applicability of the rule. Strangely enough the “test of bias” as the court understood in the present case, has been used more as a rationalizing tool in supporting a particular decision rather than as a formidable doctrine towards forging a stronger and more compact test of bias in India. In the context of the bias jurisprudence in India, this omission has proved to be particularly unwholesome, if it is considered that the principles which the court imported was a product the dynamics between two opposing ideas namely the real likelihood test and reasonable suspicion test and in missing out a proper analysis of the subject matter the court failed to give a strong doctrinal foundation to law of the bias in India.

In Gullapalli Nageswara Rao v. Andhra Pradesh State Road[2], the ghosts of Manak Lal came back to haunt the court, two years later. In the ensuing case, the Apex Court had to decide the legality of a hearing conducted by the Secretary, Home Department, who was also in charge of Transport. The Secretary had been appointed to hear objections against the state government’s plan to nationalize road transport in Andhra Pradesh and had been so appointed under an order of the chief minister. The allegation against the hearing was that as a quasi-judicial body “whose duty it was to act judicially in approving the scheme had transgressed certain fundamental principles of natural justice”. The Highest Court of the land was faced with two issues; firstly, whether the hearing by the Secretary was a judicial function and secondly, whether by virtue of being a party to the dispute[3] himself, a clear bias was formed on the part of the Secretary. While holding that “State was deciding a lis and it was to act judicially” the Court simultaneously quashed the hearing as being biased.

Though the Court did not say it expressly, the decision suggested a pattern of reasoning very similar to the “reasonable suspicion” test of bias. Unfortunately, the Court neither mentioned the reason nor the actual feasibility of adopting the test to the present state of facts. The real likelihood model of the bias test found endorsements in other decisions too, as exemplified by the A.K. Kraipauk v. Union of India[4] case, where the question was on legality of the decision of a Selection Board, where one of the members was himself the candidate, for the interview. The Supreme Court, operating on the principle that a man should not be a judge in his own case, advocated that “a mere suspicion of bias is not sufficient”. Furthermore, it added,

“…the real question is not whether he was biased. It is difficult to prove the state of mind of a person. Therefore, what we must see is whether there is reasonable ground for believing that he was likely to have been biased.[5]

The decision in Kraipauk remains one of the most significant decisions provided by the Supreme Court in the field of natural justice, taking the principles of natural justice beyond the conceptually turbulent realm of “judicial and quasi-judicial functions” to incorporate administrative functions also. However, it seems unclear why the court felt it appropriate to substitute the reasonable suspicion test with the real likelihood test, thereby blurring the doctrinal distinctions between the two. However, it is imperative to understand that the whole cause célèbre on the rule against bias is premised on finding an appropriate vantage point from which to evaluate the circumstances giving rise to the claim of bias. The very uniqueness of either of the tests lies in this perspective itself. Therein lies the difference which is indeed key to the credibility of the decision.

2. Limitations on The Doctrine of Bias

There was a case where the need to put limitations on the doctrine of bias was felt. In Maharashtra State Secondary and Higher Secondary Board v. Paritosh Kumar[6], students had scored less in their HSC and requested the authorities to take a look at their papers to ascertain the marking scheme. However, there was a parent statute which allowed only for a revaluation of marks and nothing else. The petitioner claimed that the Board’s refusal in showing papers was biased in favor of their teachers who corrected the papers. The Supreme Court held that there was no case of bias as the Board had only followed express provisions of the statute.

The SC also decided that this rule must not be dragged unnecessarily, without any limitations and a requirement was felt to put some limitations on such rule.

As a result, the following exceptions were provided for-

  1. Statutory provisions- If the parent statute provides expressly for a fair procedure, the same must be followed and it need not be substituted by the principles of natural justice. If such procedure is ambiguous, the principles of natural justice might come into play.
  2. Statutory limitations- This is when specific limitations are laid down by the statute itself to minimise bias in any form.
  3. Contempt of Court- In case of contempt of court, the rule cannot be used. A judge or judges of the court might initiate proceedings against the party even if they are the interested parties in such case.
  4. Waiver- Where the party knows about the existence of bias but does not object to the same, he waives his right.

3. Conclusion

It is important to realize that any allegation of bias must be based on reasonable apprehension of a reasonable man fully aware of the facts and circumstances of a particular case. But what is even more important to realize is that a judge too is only human, and human are bound to make errors. Furthermore, a judge too like other humans can have a set of preferences and prejudices, something no one is free from. A judge cannot be expected to work like a robot which has no emotions of its own and remains uninfluenced by the outside world. Having said that it is essential to base one’s apprehension of bias with reasonable material evidence to ensure that there was a real likelihood of bias. Vague, unmatched and far-fetched apprehensions which are unreasonable in its essence should be kept afar and must be avoided at all costs to avoid frustration of authority. The courts in the Indian context have in their own ways tried to deal with this issue and have somewhat tried to give meaning to this doctrine in a domestic sense. Yet there still exist certain gaps of ambiguity due to which this doctrine has been up for consideration at multiple instances and in many the trend has been that the court has exercised its discretionary powers to interpret the doctrine in a circumstantial sense based on the merits of the case.

[1] Manak Lal v. Dr. Prem Chand, AIR 1957 SC 425.

[2] Gullapalli Nageswara Rao and… v. Andhra Pradesh State Road, AIR 1959 SC 1376.

[3] Id.

[4] A.K. Kraipauk v. Union of India, 1969 SCC 262.

[5] Id.

[6] Maharashtra State Secondary and Higher Secondary Board v. Paritosh Kumar, 1984 AIR 1543.


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Law Wire Team
Law Wire Teamhttps://lawwire.in/
Law Wire Team attempts to delve into pertinent (and sometimes not immediately pertinent) questions regarding socio-politics, Law and their interesting matrix.

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