Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

Introduction

Right from the 18th-century, the concept of Stare decisis enrooted in precedent has been maintained over time as a feature that exalted our legal system. It was pioneered and developed in the British Court of law to fulfill inadequacies of sources that arise from lacunae in keeping the records. As far as India is concerned, the notion of precedent was brought explicitly by the Government of India Act, 1935, since it has affirmed the binding nature of federal courts and the Privy Council’s decision over the other courts in British India. Later, it was reaffirmed through Article 141 of the Indian Constitution. In general, the precedents are considered to be the nemine contradicente common thread that connects the traditional and contemporary facets of law.

It is a well-settled principle that judicial decisions are meant to enunciate the existing law by resolving the ambiguities. In such a way, when a court decides a case, its decision applies to that particular case, and its rationale holds a binding authority over all future date cases of a similar issue. This concept of precedent has been enrooted in Article 141 of the Indian Constitution, as it stipulates that the law declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all courts within the territory of India.[1] Similarly, the Doctrine of prospective overruling provides that the decision of such a case only has a prospective operation but not retrospective operation.

Historical Background

It is pertinent to note that the Doctrine of prospective overruling was a derivative of the retrospective notion of precedent, invoked and applied in the case of I C Golaknath v. State of Punjab[2] by Chief Justice Subba Rao. Despite being the subject of controversy, it seized its place in the Indian jurisprudence. The Doctrine of prospective overruling was propounded by Justice Cardozo and Justice Lerned Hand, as it narrows down the vague operational scheme of judicial pronouncements. The Doctrine was adopted from the American jurisprudence, where there are two principles viz.

  • Blackstonian Theory or Blackstonian view of Law (Traditional retrospective overruling), and
  • Prospective overruling.

The renowned case, where Justice Cardozo articulated this Doctrine of prospective overruling was Great Northern Railway v. Sunburst Oil & Refining Company.[3]

As far as India is concerned, the Apex Court expounded the former in the Golaknath case as the common law rule that the duty of the Court was “not to pronounce a new rule but to maintain and expound the old one”. It means the Judge does not make law but only discovers or finds the true law. The law has always been the same. If a subsequent decision changes the earlier one, the latter decision does not make law but only discovers the correct principle of law. The result of this view is that it is necessarily retrospective in operation[4].

Thus, if Supreme Court interprets any particular provision of a statute, it is not laying down a new law but elucidating the existing one, whereby it has a retrospective operation of overruling. Consequently, the litigants will bear the ramifications, especially those whose case has attained the finality. Here comes the need for the Doctrine of prospective overruling to obviate such a hardship.

The latter dictates that a decision made in a court of law will only have the prospective operation i.e. future decisions, and will not carry any retrospective effect i.e. over the past decisions. Undeniably, constitutional courts have never failed to uphold this Doctrine. For instance, in the case of Sarwan Kumar v. Mandal Lal Aggarwal, the Apex court explained the subject as “Under the doctrine of prospective overruling the law declared by the Court applies to the cases arising in future only and its applicability to the cases which have attained finality is saved because the repeal would otherwise work hardship to those who had trusted to its existence.”

Meaning of Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

The word ‘prospective’ implies that future application or operation or efficacious implication. In layman’s terms, the terminology ‘overruling’ denotes the act of setting aside a precedent or judicial pronouncement. Thus, the collective comprehension connotes that a judicial decision only has a prospective effect i.e. it has a prescriptive authority over future cases, but will not affect the original suit. In other words, if a dispute has been settled or resolved before a court, it will be a conclusive resolution and will not be declared invalid by any subsequent change of law. Through the eyes of Justice Cardozo, the non-application of this Doctrine of prospective overruling is a profound injustice.

Example

If a principle has been laid in the case of AB v. DA and the same has been overruled in the case of SA v. ED. Pursuant to this Doctrine of prospective overruling, the decision of the original suit i.e. AB v. DA will not be changed, but at the same time, the decision of SA v. ED will have a prospective operation, so that it applies to future cases.

Case Laws On Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

Reiteratively, Justice Subba Rao invoked this Doctrine of Prospective Overruling for the first time in the case of Golaknath v. State of Punjab[5] and marked its application in the Indian jurisprudence. He advocated that the only panacea for all the judicial ills resultant of an outstanding question that analysis the duty of courts is to make laws or merely finding the existing law to apply. He believed that the Doctrine of Prospective overruling would practically settle the mentioned two overlapping notions, though it is a dissent one. The applicability of the Doctrine will make a law to get associated with the dynamic societal transformations. He refuted all the objections against this Doctrine by referring to the schemes of Article 32, 141, and 142, which have couched in such an elastic manner that empowers the Supreme Court to formulate legal doctrines to meet the end of justice. It is noteworthy that there is no constitutional provision provided to counter the applicability of this Doctrine of Prospective Overruling.

The majority of five judges agreed on the reasons, and thereby, the Doctrine of prospective overruling was established in India. On the other side, the minority relied on the erstwhile Blackstonian theory and firmly opposed the adoption of this Doctrine in India. However, by the application of this Doctrine, Justice Subba Rao held the constitutional validity of the impugned Constitution (17th) Amendment Act by quoting the words of George F. Canfield to substantiate his stand. Whereby, he harmonized the Doctrine of prospective overruling with that of Stare decisis expressed in Great northern ry. co. v. sunburst oil & refining co.[6]

Though the Golaknath judgment was overruled by the Kesavanandha Bharti v. State of Kerala[7]case, the Doctrine that was laid in that case has not been revoked as it was insurmountable. In fact, Supreme Court reaffirmed this Doctrine of prospective overruling in a catena of cases it has dealt with.

In Waman Rao v. Union of India,[8]Supreme Court invoked this Doctrine while adjudicating the impugned issue related to the constitutional validity of Maharashtra Agricultural lands (ceiling of Holding) Act, 1961.

The traces of this Doctrine were found in the case of Indira Sawhney v Union of India [9](Mandal case), where Justice Reddy decided that the ruling laid in this particular case will come into effect post 5 years from the date of the judgment. This decision implies that the principle laid is shunned from getting affected by any ruling of subsequent cases and by the application of prospective overruling, deliverable judgments in the meantime will not be affected by this particular case’s decision.

Scope of Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

In the renowned Golaknath Case, the minority bench was against the implication of the Doctrine of prospective overruling. The objections raised are as follows,

  • This Doctrine facilitates the judiciary to interfere in the work sphere of the legislature.
  • Hardly conducive to encourage parties to go for appeals, which is again trouble enfolded with litigation.
  • Declaration for the future cases would be obiter.
  • The quantum jump is undesirable and will lead to facile overruling.

Though Justice Subba Rao discarded these objections, he went on analyzing the same and prescribed the following principles of guidelines pertaining to the usage of this Doctrine,

  • The applicability of Doctrine of Prospective Overruling is limited to disputes arising under the Constitution.
  • This Doctrine can be invoked only by the Supreme Court as it has a wide jurisdiction, pursuant to Article 141; it is binding to all other courts in India.
  • “To be moulded in accordance with the justice of the cause or matter before it.” Thus, the court has the discretion to decide whether or not the particular decision will have a retrospective operation to suspend its earlier judgment.

The same was reaffirmed in the case of Sarwan Kumar v. Madan Lal aggarwal[10] as “invocation of the doctrine of prospective overruling is left to the discretion of the court to mould with the justice of the cause or the matter before the court.”

Conclusion

Comprehensively, the Doctrine of prospective overruling limits the very essence of the traditional precedent notion, which retrospectively overruling the settled principles. It is pertinent to note that the Doctrine was first invoked in the Golaknath case to deal with the constitutional matters, but later, it has been made applicable to all the cases that fall under the ambit of other statutes as well. In the case of Managing Director, ECIL Hyderabad v B Karunakar[11] the Apex Court cited such cases viz. Atam Prakash v. the State of Haryana,[12]Orissa Cement Ltd, v. State of Orissa,[13] Mohd. Ramzan Khan,[14] S. P. Viswanathan v. Union of India,[15] so on. In Harsha Dhingra v. State of Haryana[16]case, the Court went on explaining this subject as “Prospective overruling is not only a part of the constitutional policy but also an extended facet of stare decisis and not judicial legislation.”

References:

  • https://lexlife.in/2020/07/21/constitutional-law-prospective-overruling/
  • https://lawepic.com/doctrine-of-prospective-overruling-scope/

[1]  CONSTI. Art. 141

[2] 1967 AIR 1643

[3] 287 U.S. 358

[4] Id. at 2.

[5] Id. at 2.

[6] Id. at 3.

[7] AIR 1973 SC 1461.

[8] (1981) 2 SCC 362, 1981 2 SCR 1.

[9] AIR 1993 SC 477, 1992 Supp 2 SCR 454.

[10] AIR 2003 SC 1475.

[11] (1993) 4 SCC 727.

[12]  (1986) 2 SCC 249 : (AIR 1986 SC 859).

[13] AIR 1991 SC 1676.

[14] AIR 1991 SC 471.

[15] (1991) Supp 2 SCC 269.

[16] AIR 2001 SC 3795.

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Snegapriya V S

A third-year student of law at Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT School of Law), budding first-generation lawyer cum legal researcher with multiple publications in various web journals and portals on different subject matters of law in issue. Being a zealous-natured person with thoughts enrooted in epistemophilia has boosted my passion for research writings by interpreting diversified legal facets. As a perceptive observer and reader, I pay greater attention to the overlooked legal fields where divergent challenges might arise, that include cyber law, environmental law, consumer law, and several constitutional provisions. Besides, I prioritize construing legal problems with social psychology. My dream and vision are to catch myself as a skilled legal adroit.

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