Principles of Natural Justice

The term ‘Natural Justice’ is derived from the concept of ‘Jus Natural’ mentioned in Roman law. Being associated with the ideas of morality and fairness, it is neither codified nor explicitly mentioned in the constitution. However, natural justice is implied in the fundamental rights as it is the spirit of Article 14, 19 and 21.

The objective of this concept is to make sure ideal justice is delivered to all people through fair procedure. It also aspires to avoid irrationality and arbitrariness in decision making. It helps to prevent the misuse of power by the court, as any order that violates principles of natural justice remains invalid.

This principle is not only confined to judicial domain but also extends to quasi-judicial, administrative and quasi-administrative sectors[1]. This principle guarantees the right to be heard and ensures no injustice is done so far as the proceedings are concerned. This concept instils public confidence in the judicial system.

Natural justice is classified into three rules

  • Rule against Bias- Nemo Judex in Causa Sua
  • Rule of fair hearing- Audi Alteram Partem
  • Rule of reasoned decisions

1. Nemo Judex in Causa Sua – Rule Against Bias

The maxim ‘Nemo Judex in Causa Sua’ means, the deciding authority must be fair-minded and unbiased while delivering justice, i.e., no man shall be a judge in his cause. It is the most primary and basic requirement of natural justice. The image of lady justice with her eyes being covered with a black cloth adheres to this principle as it illustrates the impartiality and neutrality required for the delivery of justice. This rule governs the mentality and attitude of the deciding authority. A person holding his interest in a particular case is incapable of delivering unbiased justice, and the decision which is found to be biased does not hold any value. The applicability of this rule is not only confined to courts but also extends to tribunals, statutory authorities, government, prison officials and even bureaucrats. This principle strives to instil confidence in the legal system of the nation.

Types of bias

1. Personal bias

Personal bias arises due to a personal or professional relationship between the deciding authority and the parties involved, (which may be friendly or hostile). Affection towards friends and hostility towards foes is human nature. However, it is mandatory for a decision-maker to not be influenced by any personal bias to deliver ideal justice. The Supreme Court in the case of Crawford Bayley v. Union of India[2]  held that if any decision-making officer is proved to have been influenced by any kind of personal bias while deciding a matter, then the doctrine of the rule against bias will apply.

In the case of Baidyanath Mohapatra v. State of Orissa[3] a government officer was given early retirement at the age of 50 as per the recommendations of the review committee. The chairman of the tribunal who confirmed the premature retirement order turned out to be one of the members of the review committee. The Supreme Court held that the tribunal here was the same person who took the administrative decision against the government officer; hence he acted as a judge in his cause. Thereby the decision of the tribunal was declared invalid.

Test for personal bias

In order to object any decision on grounds of personal bias, it is essential to prove any one of the following tests[4].

  • The reasonable suspicion of bias test
  • The real likelihood of bias test

According to the reasonable suspicion of bias test, if the actions of the deciding authority cause a person with sound mind[5] to think that there is an actual possibility of bias for or against a particular party, then the decision made is biased and hence invalid. Therefore, this test mainly focuses on the external appearance of the decision.

In the real likelihood of bias test, if a person with a sound mind, possessing adequate knowledge and information with respect to a particular issue, finds the decision made regarding that issue to be biased, then it proves the existence of bias in the decision. This test attracts the evaluation process of the courts (or other decision-making bodies).

2. Pecuniary Bias

This bias, as its name suggests, emerges when the decision making authority has any sort of monetary or financial interest in the concerned dispute. However, this bias will not come into play when the judge, despite having a financial interest in the case, does not have any financial interest in the outcome of the case.[6]   In the case of Jeejeebhoy v. Assistant Collector, Thane[7], one of the members of the deciding bench was also a member of the cooperative society for which the disputed land was acquired. Upon, observing this, the bench was reconstituted by the Chief Justice.

3. Subject-matter Bias

When the deciding authority, either directly or indirectly, is associated with the subject matter of the case, then it results in subject matter bias. However, there must be evidence of real likelihood of bias and not mere involvement. In the case of Muralidhar v. Khadam Singh[8], the court refused to vitiate the order of the tribunal just because the wife of the chairperson belonged to congress party whose candidates were defeated by the petitioner.

4. Departmental Bias

Departmental bias arises when the adjudicator and the party involved in the dispute share a common department. It is very essential to curb the existence of this bias in order to improve the efficiency of the administrative process. In the case of Krishna Bus Services v. State of Haryana[9], The Supreme Court stated that departmental bias arises due to a clash between duty and department, often results in the destruction of public confidence.

 5. Preconceived notion bias

A notion is the belief, view, conception or opinion of a person towards a particular issue. However, the notion may not always adhere to what is correct. An adjudicator must keep away his notion and apply what is correct in law. When he fails to do so, it leads to preconceived notion bias[10] and the trail cannot be declared a fair-trail.

2. Audi Alteram Partem: Right to a fair hearing

The term ‘Audi Alteram Partem’ is a legal maxim which means, ‘The other side must be heard as well’. The objective of this integral principle is to provide fair and equal opportunity to a person to express his defence and justification before any action is taken against him. It guarantees the parties the right to be heard, the right to respond to pieces of evidence and the right to be legally represented. The Constitution acknowledges this principle in Article 14 and Article 21. In the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India[11], The Supreme Court held that any action done without hearing the aggrieved party is sheer violation of Article 14. It also held that the term ‘Procedure established by law’ mentioned in Article 21 must not be arbitrary and irrational. This judgment highlights the importance of Audi Alteram Partem as the spirit of fundamental rights.

Elements of fair hearing

There are certain essential components which must be satisfied to adhere to the principle of fair hearing. They are as follows

1. Notice

To conduct a fair legal proceeding against a person, it is mandatory to provide prior notice to that person regarding his actions.[12] Issuing early notice confers the parties concerned their right to know the facts of the case because without completely understanding the facts, one cannot defend himself. Any order passed without prior notice to the concerned party, is considered to be void ab initio[13].

A valid legal notice is expected to have the following characteristics.

  • Must mention the date, time, place and nature of hearing
  • Jurisdiction under which the case is filed must be mentioned
  • The content must be clear and unambiguous[14]
  • Must provide sufficient time to the party concerned to prepare his case
  • Must mention the penalty of damage the party has to suffer if he fails the case[15].

If the notice issued does not include any one of the above-mentioned attributes, it is considered to be invalid.

The mode in which notice must be issued is specified in the statutes concerned. Yet, The Supreme Court in the case of K.A Abdul Khader v. Dy. Director[16] has imposed the following manners in which notice can be issued

  1. By personally delivering it to the party concerned
  2. By posting it to the party concerned through registered post
  3. If the above-mentioned methods are not possible, then it can be affixed on the outer door of the concerned party’s residence.

Sometimes, when notice has to be issued to a large number of persons who are educated, it is done through newspapers. However, this method cannot be adopted in the case of individuals.

Exception

The following are some circumstances that do not mandate prior issue of notice to the party concerned.

  • When suo motto representation is made by the affected person
  • When no prejudice or bias can be caused to the party concerned
  • When the party concerned is imputed to the matter in dispute

2. Right to know the evidence against him

In a fair trial, it is essential for the party concerned to know the pieces of evidence which are produced against him. In other words, the parties need to know on what basis the adjudicator will decide the case. Therefore, any decision made based on evidence unknown to the party concerned is considered to be invalid.

Exception

In the case of Hiranath Misra vs Rajendra Medical College[17], allegations were made against some male students that they have entered the girl’s hostel and misbehaved with the hostel inmates following which an enquiry committee was set up. The committee recorded the statements given by the complainant in the absence of the said male students and subsequently, they were expelled. The order of the enquiry committee was challenged on the grounds that it violated principles of natural justice and deprived the appellants of their right to know the evidence. However, the Supreme Court held that the girls would not have attempted to make statements in the presence of appellants owing to fear of revenge and harassment.

3. Cross-Examination

Examining a witness who has been testified, in order to determine the degree of truth in his testimony is referred to as cross-examination. It has proved to be an efficient process to bring out the truth and differentiate it from falsehood. It is an important component in fair hearing as it provides an opportunity to the party concerned to interrogate the evidence against him.

In the case of State of Kerala v. K.T. Shaduli[18], the Sales Tax Officer claimed that the returns filed by the assessee, based on a book of account was incorrect. When the respondent, (the assessee) requested for the cross-examination of wholesale dealers, the Sales Tax Officer rejected it. The Supreme Court held that it was only through the cross-examination of the wholesale dealers, the assessee could prove that his actions were correct and therefore, denial of cross-examination obstructs fair hearing and contravenes principles of natural justice.

Exception

In the case of State of J&K v. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed[19], The Supreme Court declared that where a mere collection of statements from the affected party is done without an oral hearing, right to cross-examine the witness do not exist.

4. Right to Legal Representation

For a fair trial, it is important to provide the parties concerned with an opportunity to legal representation in order to prove that their actions are in accordance with the established principles of law. Moreover, representation by a lawyer is very essential as in most cases, the party concerned will not be able to completely understand the legalities involved in the case[20]

In the case of M.H Hoskot vs State of Maharashtra[21], The Supreme Court declared that the right to free legal aid becomes very essential for a fair hearing when the accused is not able to afford legal services due to illiteracy or poverty or any such inability. It also stated that the state must provide free legal aid to those who cannot afford it on their own.

Exception

The right to be legally represented does not arise in the following circumstances

  1. In cases of disciplinary proceedings[22]
  2. A detainee under Preventive detention proceedings as per Article 23(3)(b)

3. Reasoned Decisions

The third principle of natural justice states that any decision made, must be provided with adequate reasons in support. The objective of this principle is to make the parties aware of not only the decisions but also the reason behind them. The Supreme Court, in the case of Erusian Equipment & Chemicals Ltd vs State Of West Bengal[23] stated that, any decision taken without valid reasons is invalid.

This principle is based on three grounds

  • Reasons satisfy the parties against whom actions were taken
  • If the aggrieved party is not convinced by the reasons provided, they can move an appeal.
  • Making it a duty of the decision-maker to reason out his decisions prevents arbitrary actions.

Conclusion

The concept of natural justice has been incorporated into the Indian legal system to safeguard the rights of people and curb arbitrariness in decision making. Being a protector of fundamental rights, natural justice also tries to prevent the misuse of power by the courts. It makes sure that the poor and illiterate are also provided with free and adequate legal aid and save them from exploitation.

Adhering to the principles of natural justice is very essential to not only the judiciary but also all decision-making bodies to achieve complete public trust and confidence. This would strengthen the administration and will lead to collective development.


[1] Mohinder Singh Gill v. Chief Election Commissioner 1978 AIR 851

[2] AIR 2006 SCC 25            

[3] 1989 AIR 2218

[4] Railway Officers Assn. v. Union of India (2003) 4 SCC 289, The Supreme Court held that accusations of bias on imaginary grounds cannot be entertained.

[5] R v. Alan, (1864) B. & S. 915.

[6] R v. Mulvihill, (1990) 1 AII ER 436.

[7] AIR 1965 SC 1096

[8] AIR 1965 SC 455

[9] 1985 AIR 1651.

[10] Govindaraju v. State of T.N (1973) 1 SCC 336.

[11] 1978 AIR 597

[12] Keshav Mills Co. Ltd v Union of India, (1973) 1 SCC 380

[13] Meenglas Tea Estate v. its workmen, AIR 1963 SC 1719

[14] Suresh Chandra Verma (Dr.) vs Chancellor Nagpur University, (1991) 1 SCC 104

[15] Punjab National Bank vs All India Bank Employees Federation, AIR 1960 SC 468

[16] AIR 1958 SC 86

[17] AIR 1973 SC 1260

[18] (1967) AIR 1305

[19] AIR 1960 SC 16

[20] J.J. Mody v. the State of Bombay, AIR 1962 Guj 197.

[21] 1978 AIR 1548

[22] Board of Trustees of the Port of Bombay vs Dilip Kumar, 1983 AIR 109

[23] 1975 AIR 266

Prithviraj S from School of Law, Sastra Deemed to be University

“I am equally passionate about law and football, and I aspire to be as good as a lawyer as Cristiano Ronaldo is a footballer”

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