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Doctrine Of Legitimate Expectation In India


The Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation forms is a crucial concept in Administrative Law. Not only is it important to study this doctrine from a theoretical point of view, but is also extremely important in practical life. The doctrine of legitimate expectation creates locus standi for an aggrieved party to either raise a concern or challenge the administrative action pertaining to a certain condition in the form of expectation. This doctrine acts as a safeguard measure for the rights of an aggrieved party based on ‘legitimate expectation’ ” in the case where an administrative order affects the aggrieved party adversely through a legislative order. In most cases, this particular doctrine has been enforced in the area of natural justice. In the case of Schmidt & Anr v Secretary of State for Home Affairs[i], Lord Denning was of the opinion that the proposition that administrative authority should give a hearing when a person’s liberty, property, right, interest, or even some legitimate expectation was being affected.

Meaning of the Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation

A person may have a legitimate expectation of being treated in a certain way by an administrative authority even though he has no legal right in private law to receive such treatment. The expectation may arise from a representation or promise made by the authority including an implied representation or from consistent past practice.[ii]As per this doctrine, it is possible to make an administrative authority answerable where there lies a legitimate expectation. Although the “legitimate expectation” may not necessarily flow from a legal right, if there exists an expectation that flows from a promise or an established practice, the doctrine of legitimate expectation will stand strong. Nonetheless, it is pertinent to make a note of the fact that the legitimate expectation must at all costs be valid and reasonable. This doctrine mandates fairness in administrative action arising from a promise or an established practice. When the public authority fails to act as per the expectation, it will be considered as a breach of the rule of law that mandates predictability and would ultimately be ultra vires. [iii]

Conditions for a valid ‘Legitimate Expectation’

While making an argument on such grounds, it is pertinent to understand that the doctrine cannot be invoked on ambiguous, illogical, invalid or unreasonable grounds. This doctrine may only be invoked in conditions where there is either explicit promise made by the administrative authority or where an established practice has been followed. A similar observation was made in the case of Madras City Wine Merchants Association v. State of Tamil Nadu[iv]. In the aforementioned case, it was decided that if an express promise has been held out or some kind of representation has been made by a public authority, provided that such a promise or representation is not vague, unclear and unambiguous or where there exists a past practice (established practice) which the claimant can reasonably expect to be followed in his case as well, then the claimant may argue on the grounds of this doctrine. Furthermore, this kind of expectation, in all cases, must be reasonable. Where a person has no enforceable right but is still affected or likely to be affected by the order passed by a public authority, the doctrine of legitimate expectation may be invoked and such a person may have a legitimate expectation of being treated in a particular manner by an administrative authority.[v]Since this doctrine lays emphasis on certain terms like “express or explicit promise” and “established or regular practice”, it is necessary to delve deeper and study the same.

1. Express Promise

Legitimate, or reasonable, the expectation may arise from an express promise given on behalf of a public authority or from the existence of a regular practice which the claimant can reasonably expect to continue. [vi] The legitimate expectation may be a result of some explicitly made promise or statement by an administrative authority. It is extremely important to make sure that such an express promise is free from vagueness and ambiguity and is precise and clear. In the case of the Re Liverpool Taxi Owners Association[vii], it was held that legitimate expectations may indeed flow from an express promise made by a public authority.

2. Established Practice

In the case of Council of Civil Service Unions and others v Minister for the Civil Service[viii], it was observed that legitimate expectation could flow from either an express statement or promise or because of the presence of a regular or established practice. A claimant may expect such an established practice to be followed in his case as well.

An expectation may be disregarded when the statute clearly provided for something, in such a case, one’s legitimate expectation cannot be otherwise. Another significant point that one must not give a blind eye to is that when there is a clear change of policy, the expectation founded on the older policy may not stand strong. Legitimate expectation can at the most be one of the grounds which may give rise to judicial review but the granting of relief is very much limited.[ix]

Types of Legitimate Expectations

Primarily, there are two types of legitimate expectations. They are as follows:

1. Procedural Legitimate Expectation

Such a legitimate expectation arises when the person thinks that a specific course of procedures will be followed by the administrative authority before making the decision. For instance, where a person had expected a specific policy to be followed that was already existing but was not followed or when a person expected to be subjected to a specific policy but was later subjected to some other policy or where the person expected to be granted a hearing but was deprived of it. These instances are not restrictive or limited and there could be many more instances of procedural legitimate expectation. The procedure could be in the form of a hearing, enquiry, representation, etc. It revolves around the notion of administrative actions being devoid of arbitrary nature. A person having a legitimate expectation must be granted the opportunity of being heard.

2. Substantive Legitimate Expectation

This kind of legitimate expectation arises when a person has been induced by a public authority of such expectation where he would have been granted some substantive benefit. The substantive legitimate expectation arises where a person has a particular benefit following from a promise or representation made by the public authority. Notwithstanding that, it is believed that this kind of legitimate expectation is may not have a strong ground and may falter due to an overriding public interest.

How to assess a case of Legitimate Expectation?

Some cases have provided a structured pathway in assessing cases pertaining to the subject of legitimate expectation. In one such case[x], a British Court of Appeal laid down some guidelines. It was stated that the courts while dealing with this doctrine, must not disregard the following three questions:

  1. What has the public authority promised to do or has been doing via an established practice?
  2. Has the public authority acted unlawfully concerning the commitment of such nature?
  3. What the court shall do in such situations?

Judicial Review of Administrative Actions

Judicial review may help exercising judicial control over certain administrative actions. This doctrine is applicable strictly with respect to administrative actions. A mere argument of procedural fairness may not invoke this doctrine against the legislation. The recourse of judicial review in administrative action is possible when the decision-making authority has committed an error of law, or in a situation where the decision-making authority has displayed an unreasonable action that no reasonable authority would have made the done, or where the decision making authority has acted unfairly.[xi]The subject matter of the judicial review is a decision made by some person or a refusal by him to make a decision. The said decision must have some kind of negative consequence i.e., it must affect the person/s. A person can be said to have been affected by the order of the administrative authority when the rights or obligations of that person have been altered or by depriving the person of particular benefits. The benefits must have either been promised or assured to him by the decision-maker where he has been told that he would be given an opportunity to be heard if the benefits are to be withdrawn, or where the decision-maker has permitted the enjoyment of such benefits in the past unless some rational reasoning has been given to him for withdrawing such benefits.

Indian Cases on Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation

1. State of Kerala Vs. K.G. Madhavan Pillai, (1988) 4 SCC 669

In the aforementioned case, the government had issued a sanction to the respondent to open a new unaided school and to upgrade the existing ones. A few days later, a new direction was given wherein they were asked to keep the sanction in abeyance. It was argued that this violates the Principles of Natural Justice. Subsequently, the court was of the opinion that the former sanction gave rise to legitimate expectation in the minds of the respondents which was consequently violated by the latter direction of the government, that too, was devoid of the adherence to the principles of Natural Justice.

2. MRF Ltd Kottayam vs Asst Commissioner, Sales Tax (2006) 8 SCC 702

In this case, a very interesting observation was made. It was stated that public interest would have an upper hand over the legitimate expectation in question. The public interest may override such a legitimate expectation. Hence, a counter-argument to the argument raising concern over legitimate expectation could be the fact that there lies a greater public interest in not acting as per the said legitimate expectation. A similar observation was made in the case of Howrah Municipal Corporation v. Ganges Road Company Ltd[xii] where it was held that one cannot claim on the grounds of this doctrine when a statutory provision was enforced keeping in mind the public interest.

3. Food Corporation of India v. Kamdhenu Cattle Feed Industries Ltd, (1993) 1 SCC 71

In this case, the Apex court made an observation on the interlink between Article 14 of the Indian Constitution and the Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation. In India, Article 14 envisages this doctrine as it falls within the ambit of non – arbitrariness as enshrined in the aforementioned Article.

4. National Building Constructions Corporation v. S Raghunathan, (1998)7 SCC 66

In this case, the legitimate expectation was regarded as means of procedural as well as substantive rights. The doctrine aims for fair play in the actions of administrative authority and is enforceable as a substantive right.


The doctrine of legitimate expectation acts as a safeguard of not only the rights of people in cases of administrative action but also helps preserve the cornerstone of every law i.e., the Principles of Natural Justice. This doctrine may help a distressed person seek justice against an administrative action on the pretext of a legitimate expectation. Nevertheless, this doctrine must not be invoked or applied in a careless fashion and must only be applied in cases of grave injustice where a person suffers in some way or another because of the actions of the administrative authority. Hence, it must be applied cautiously and must not be misused.

FAQs on Doctrine Of Legitimate Expectation

1. When does a person have ‘legitimate expectation’?

The legitimate expectation of a certain treatment is possible where an authority has either expressly or impliedly made a promise or has been carrying out a particular established practice. Such an expectation must be logical and reasonable. While making a claim on the grounds of the doctrine of legitimate expectation, it is necessary to ensure that there lies a foundation for the same. The person enforcing such an expectation must also ensure that they have the locus standi to have such an expectation.

2. Can the legitimate expectation be in contravention of the law?

An illegal expectation cannot be termed as a ‘legitimate’ expectation. Hence, while arguing a case on such grounds, the legitimate expectation that flows from an express promise or established practice must not be in contravention of the law of the land. The expectation must strictly be in accordance with the law. The expectation must be within the powers of administrative authority to fulfill it.

3. Can a Public interest override a legitimate expectation?

Yes, there is a possibility that legitimate expectation may be side-lined on the pretext of underlying public interest. Nonetheless, this is not a hard and fast rule, and may also depend upon the interpretation of the court and may differ from case to case.

[i] Schmidt v Secretary of State for Home Affairs, (1968) 2 Ch. 149.

[ii]Halsbury’s Laws of England Vol. I (1) 4th Edition para 81 at pages 151-152.

[iii]R v North and East Devon Health Authority, ex p Coughlan [2001] QB 213 (CA).

[iv]Madras City Wine Merchants Association v. State of Tamil Nadu, (1994) 5 SCC 509

[v] U.P. Awas Evam Vikas Parishad v. Gyan Devi, (1995) 2 SCC 326.

[vi] R. v. Secretary of State of Transport Exporte Greater London Council, (1985)3 AlI.ER 300.

[vii]Re Liverpool Taxi Owners Association, (1972) 2 AII ER 589.

[viii]Council of Civil Service Unions and others v Minister for the Civil Service [1984] 3 All ER 935.

[ix] Union of India v. Hindustan Development Corpn., (1993) 3 SCC 499 at 548.

[x]R (Bibi) v Newham LBC [2002] 1 WLR 237.

[xi]CCSD vs. Minister for the Civil Service, (1984) 3 AII.ER 935.

[xii]Howrah Municipal Corporation v. Ganges Road Company Ltd, (2004) 1 SCC 663.







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Aayushi Mittra

Aayushi Mittra is a Fifth Year Law Student pursuing 5 Years BLS LLB at SVKM's Pravin Gandhi College of Law. Securing AIR 18 in CS Foundation exams, she wishes to not restrict herself to the ambit of General Corporate Laws, but also wishes to explore various other fields of law like IPR, Cyber Law, Family Law, Capital Markets & Securities Laws and Sports Law. Apart from academics, she immensely enjoys participating in Drafting competitions, MUNs and Article Writing competitions.