The doctrine of legitimate expectation is an important concept fashioned by the Courts of Law to prevent abuse of power by the government authorities. Functioning in the realm of Public Law, it seeks to review and remedy the lapses on part of the administrative set-up under the umbrella of natural justice and good administration. It largely emphasizes the duty to act with fairness and reasonableness.
Legitimate expectation can be explained in simple words as a valid expectation of a benefit or relief which a person ensues from the authority. Any deprivation of such a right, though it may not be a legal right, confers upon the individual a locus standi or a cause of action to contest such administrative decision or breach of procedural rules.
The doctrine reverberates the maxim of audi alteram partem, wherein the parties have a right to represent their sides of the case or to be heard. It supports perpetuation of the principles of Rule of Law, non-arbitrariness in public dealings, promissory estoppel, fiduciary duty and balance of power.
Thus, it is a doctrine based on equity and serves as a yardstick for public morality in public activities. The only good defence against it would be ‘overriding public interest’, i.e., if the benefit contradicts with the larger public interest, such legitimate expectation can be rightly quashed.
Requirements of a Legitimate Expectation
- It must be based on a justifiable promise or an established practice by the public body.
- It must be clear, certain, reasonable, unambiguous and lawful.
- Persons seeking protection must be fair in their dealings with the system.
Role of Discretion of the Court
This doctrine deters the public authorities from arbitrary exercise of power. Wherever a duty exists, the court is empowered to check upon the non-fulfillment of such duties against public aspirations. The courts of law are bestowed with the discretionary exercise of autonomy to liberally interpret the provisions concerning the issue of benefit or relief to the person wanting it. They may balance it in favour of the public good and check upon the callous attitude of the public bodies.
A legitimate Expectation may be based upon: –
- An Express Promise
- Representation of an individual or a group
- Conventional Past Action
- Settled or Expected Conduct
- A long-standing practice or procedure
Origin and Evolution of Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation
The concept of Legitimate Expectation was born in the Schmidt v. Secretary for Home Affairs case and incorporated in the common law jurisdiction. In this case, some “alien” students, who had been granted permits to study at the Hubbard College of Scientology for a limited time period, were denied the right to be heard owing to a change in the policy. They were demanding an extension and renewal of their study permits. As per the previous policy, the Home Office had no reservations on letting alien students to study at their educational institutions. Due to certain policy changes, Scientology colleges were derecognized from being educational institutions for foreign students. Moreover, the subject of Scientology was dubbed as “socially harmful” since it was a pseudo-philosophical cult.
Their claim was not successful in the Court of Appeal due to two reasons:-
- The Foreign Nationals were entitled to stay in the country by licence of the crown, which means, the crown can unquestionably cancel the license without giving reasons.
- They could not have ‘legitimate expectation since their permits were granted.
This is how the term Legitimate Expectation came into being. Lord Denning went on to give a valuable dictum in this case, paving way for this full-fledged doctrine. In the words of Lord Denning M.R., “A man should keep his words. All the more so when promise is not a bare promise but is made with the intention that the other party should act upon it” He further propounded that “Every individual has a right and if that right is affected by the actions of the State or its instrumentalities, the affected party at the very minimum must be provided with a chance of hearing.”
Likewise, in Attorney-General of Hong Kong v. Ng Yuen Shiu, the Privy Council judged it unfair to deport an illegal immigrant without a fair hearing.
The nature and scope of Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation were extensively discussed in the cases, Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service and R v North and East Devon Health Authority, ex parte Coughlan.
Development and Application of Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation in India: Leading Case Laws
The doctrine of Legitimate Expectation came to be first recognized in India in 1988. In the particular case, State of Kerala v. K.G. Madhavan Pillai, the establishment of a new school by a previous order was crushed by a subsequent order. The court held that such suspension was violative of the legitimate expectation that arose in its beneficiaries.
In an important case, Union of India v. Hindustan Development Corporation, the Supreme Court upheld legitimate expectation as a ground for judicial review. It further held that the principle was closely connected to the ‘right to be heard.
Another landmark case was MP Oil Extraction Co. v. State of Madhya Pradesh. In this case, the Apex Court was dealing with the license renewal claims of some industries. It held that extending an invitation, on behalf of the State, was not arbitrary and the selected industry had a legitimate expectation of renewal of the license under the renewal claims.
In Scheduled Caste and Weaker Section Welfare Association v. State of Kerala, a previous notice for cleaning some areas was amended by a subsequent notice which excluded some slum areas from its purview. The court termed it as a ‘violation of legitimate expectation’ and made the Government responsible for the implied promise made in the past, upholding it in favour of the residents of the slum.
In Nav Jyoti Cooperative Group Housing Society, the seniority criterion for land allotment by a cooperative society was subsequently changed. The Supreme Court responded by emphasizing the importance of the doctrine of legitimate expectation in ensuring fairness and representation of persons affected by changes in past policies. It also highlighted that the doctrine imposes an essence of duty on public bodies to act fairly.
The court nevertheless recognized an exception in the case Madras City wine Merchants Association v. State of Tamil Nadu. It declared that the doctrine would be non-applicable when the change in public policy is in public interest.
Most recently (in 2020), the doctrine of legitimate expectation came to light in the case, State of Jharkhand and Others v. Brahmaputra Metallics Ltd., Ranchi. In this case, the evolution and application of the principles of promissory estoppel and legitimate expectation were expansively discussed by Justices Indu Malhotra and D.Y. Chandrachud. In the instant case, the Jharkhand Government offered a rebate or deduction of 50% in electricity duty for the next 5 years under the Industrial Policy 2012. Later, the Government failed arbitrarily in issuing the notification on time, which clearly dishonored the Article 14 of the Constitution (which deals with arbitrary exercise of discretion) as well as the legitimate expectations that arose in the respondents. The court rejected the contention of ‘unjust enrichment’ by the appellants and decided in favour of the respondents by stating that ‘unjust enrichment’ could’ve been applied only if the ‘duty’ had been passed on to the customers, thereby retaining the refund in his own pocket.
Difference between Legitimate Expectation and Promissory Estoppel
In most cases in the Indian scenario, the doctrine of legitimate expectation has been overlapped with the doctrine of promissory estoppel. Estoppel intends to enforce a promise (which may not legally binding) as may seem just in order to do good losses suffered by the injured party. The legitimate expectation is, however, a substantive and more broader concept than promissory estoppel. The basic differences can be pointed out as follows: –
|Legitimate Expectation||Promissory Estoppel|
|It is a remedy founded in the domain of Public Law.||It is a remedy found in the domain of Private Law.|
|It comes into the picture when a public authority causes an individual to be certain of being a beneficiary.||It can be evoked when a promise is unfilled. The court may insist on performance or compensation in the interests of fairness and equity in order to restore the position before such promise.|
|There is a cause of action even when no legal right has been infringed. It acts as a “sword”.||There is no such cause of action created; it operates to offer a negative protection. It acts as a “shield”.|
|No detriment needs to be proved.||The aggrieved party is required to show the loss suffered due to the non-fulfillment of the promise.|
|It is enforceable against public authorities for their conduct.||It is enforceable against any person.|
|Violation of a statutory right or contract isn’t required.||Breach of a contract is necessary.|
Aspects: Procedural and Substantive
There are two main types of Legitimate Expectations recognized by judicial precedents and rulings. These are as follows:-
1. Procedural legitimate expectation
It can be described as an expectation that a proper existing procedure would be followed by the decision-makers. Such an expectation is founded upon the very conduct of the authorities.
In the Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service , also known as the GCHQ case, employees of the government communications headquarters were banned from engaging in trade union due to national security reasons, by the Margaret Thatcher government’s order. The Council of Trade Unions Civil service claimed that they had legitimate expectations to bargain for fair wages. The House of Lords dismissed the claim stating national security as an exception to the judicial review.
2. Substantive legitimate expectation
It can be described as a promise of a lawful representation or benefit (welfare befit or license) to be (continued to) given to an individual or entity by the government authorities. Such a promise must also be clearly focussed on that individual and reasonable.
In R (Bibi) v Newham London Borough Council , some families in UK were promised temporary, secured accommodation within 18 months by the public authority under the homeless provision. Later on, the authorities refused to be bound by the assurance and did not favour the claimants, who were acting on such reliance. The Court of appeal recognized that a legitimate expectation was created in the case and that a secure tenancy had to be allocated to the families. However, the Court rested the final discretion with the local authority.
Remedies adopted by the courts are as follows:-
- The decision (by the decision-makers) can be declared void by a quashing order and order for the fulfillment of the expectation can be upheld.
- The court can reconsider the decision.
- It can order compensation for loss suffered by means of monetary payment.
To sum up, the doctrine of legitimate expectation is a wide-ranging and flexible concept. It has been crystallized and incorporated well in the Indian scenario to serve the aspirations of a welfare state. It acts as a vital safeguard, ensuring proper discharge of duties by the Government.
- Concept of Legitimate Expectation, available at: https://www.lawteacher.net/free-law-essays/constitutional-law/concept-of-legitimate-expectation-constitutional-law-essay.php?vref=1 (last visited on May 9, 2021).
- Doctrine of Legitimate Expectations under the Administrative Law, available at: https://blog.ipleaders.in/legitimate-expectaion/ (last visited on May 9, 2021).
- Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation, available at: https://www.lawctopus.com/academike/doctrine-legitimate-expectations/ (last visited on May 11, 2021).
- India: Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation: Overview, available at: https://www.mondaq.com/india/constitutional-administrative-law/320664/doctrine-of-legitimate-expectation-overview (last visited on May 11, 2021).
- Muzafar, S., “Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation in India: an analysis”, International Journal of Advanced Research in Management and Social Sciences, (2013).
- Legitimate expectations: Evolution and application of the doctrine in India and how is it different from promissory estoppel as explained by Supreme Court, available at: https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/2020/12/02/legitimate-expectations-evolution-and-application-of-the-doctrine-in-india-and-how-is-it-different-from-promissory-estoppel-as-explained-by-supreme-court/ (last visited on May 11, 2021).
- Deepti Monga, “Estoppel and Legitimate Expectation”, Volume 4, Issue 6, International Journal of Computer Engineering in Research Trends 242-247 (2017).
- Jagjit Singh, “Legitimate Expectations”, Volume 3, Issue 1, International Journal of Research in Economics & Social Sciences (2013).
- Jarnail Singh, Dr. RK Gupta, “Doctrine of legitimate expectation: The emerging trends in Indian Judiciary”, Volume 3, Issue 5, International Journal of Law (2017).
  1 All E.R. 904
 Lord Denning “Recent development in the Doctrine of consideration” Modern Law Review, Vol. 15, 1956.
  UKHL 1
 (1983) 2 A.C. 629
  UKHL 9
 3 All E.R. 850
 (Kerala Vs K G Madhavan Pillai – (1988) – 4 SCC 660).
 1994 AIR 988
 (1997) 7 SCC 592
 (1991) 2 SCC 604
 (1994) 5 SCC 509
 Civil Appeal Nos. 3860-3862 of 2020
 AC 374 HL 401
 EWCA Civ 607
This article has been written by Tazeen Ahmed, B.A. LL.B(Hons) student at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
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