Which out of the conflicting judgments of co-equal Benches is binding ?

P.L. Goyal, Advocate
(Retd. Additional District & Sessions Judge)

Date : 12/08/2019 - Phone No. 9312219855, 2421307

Which out of the conflicting judgments of co-equal Benches is binding ?

Article 141 of the Constitution of India commands that the law declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all the courts within the territory of India. Judges of all other courts are thus bound to follow the decisions of the Supreme Court irrespective of their own views on legal matters. The Supreme Court has thus been assigned the role of legal mentor of the nation. Law will be bereft of its utility if it is thrown into a state of uncertainly by reason of conflicting decisions. In order to ensure a state of certainty and uniformity, the framers of the Constitutior had inserted Article 141 in the Constitution. Similarly, the subordinate courts are bound by the decisions of the High Courts under which they are working whereas the dicta of the other High Courts have a high persuasive value for them. There is no explicit provision of law in the Constitution of India in this regard but that is the unwritten rule based on conventions, the doctrine of binding precedents, or stare decisis or what is known as judicial comity.

It is well established by now that even the obiter dicta of the Supreme Court or the High Courts on a point raised and argued before them will be binding on the subordinate courts. An obiter dictum or a mere enunciation of a principle of law pronounced ex cathedra would amount to a declaration of law. The Final Court in M/s. Ranehehoddas Atma Ram v. Union of India (AIR 1961 S.C. 935) ruled that if the questions which were never required to be decided and could not have been or had been treated to be decided, then any casual observations on such questions shall not be treated as binding although it is true that the observations even in the nature of obiter dictum are also binding on subordinate courts.

A decision rendered by a larger Bench of the Supreme Court will have precedence over the decisions rendered by smaller Benches. However, in Jawed Ahmed v. State of Maharashtra (AIR 1985 S.C. 2312) two Hon'ble Judges of the Final Court observed that the Supreme Court sits in Divisions of two or three Judges for the sake of convenience and it may be inappropriate for a Division Bench of three Judges to purport to over-rule the decision of a Division Bench of two Judges. But in M/s Ujagar Prints v. Union of India (AIR 1987 S.C. 874) another Division Bench comprising of two Judges of the Apex Court observed that a Bench of two Judges of Supreme Court should not disregard the decision of a Bench of three Judges and if the Bench of two Judges is inclined to disagree with what has been said by the Bench of three Judges then the case should be referred by the Bench of two Judges to a larger Bench. Thus the correct legal position in this regard remains a big question mark.

Where the later decision of the Supreme Court, even though by smaller Bench, has analysed and explained the observations of an earlier larger Bench, then the law as declared by and explained in the later decision is binding upon the High Counts as observed by a Full Bench of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana in M/s Subhash Chander Kamlesh Kumari v. State of Punjab (AIR 1990 Punjab and Haryana 259). No exception can be taken to this erudite opinion rendered by the Full Bench of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana as when the Judges of the Final Court itself explain the dictum laid down by the earlier larger Bench then such an explanation must hold the field in the courts subordinate to the Supreme Court.

The core problem in the arena of binding precedents is when there are conflicting judgments by co-equal Benches. Which out of the two conflicting judgments in such a situation is binding has not been authoritatively decided by the Apex Court. The various High Courts in the country have, however, adopted divergent views in this regard.

According to some High Courts if the subsequent Bench doubts the correctness of the earlier Bench decision, then the matter should be referred to a larger Bench for considering the correctness of the earlier view. If such a step is not taken and divergent views are prevalent, the subordinate courts should follow the earlier view in preference of the latter view. In this connection reference may be made to Jadab Chandra Pradhan v. Smt.Kaushalya Pradhan (1975 Crl. L.J. 856). Let me hasten to add here that in this case decided by the High Court of Orissa the conflict was between the two judgments rendered by single Judges of the High Court but the same should not make any difference and thus according to this decision in the event of conflict between co-equal Benches, the subordinate courts must follow the earlier judgments.

To the contrary, the platitudinous thinking is that, out of two conflicting judgments of co-equal Benches, the subordinate courts must follow the latest decision as the same impliedly overrules the earlier decisions. In this connection reference may be made to Gopal Krishan Indly v. Fifth Additional District Judge, Kanpur (AIR 1981 Allahabad 300).

A Full Bench of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, however, adopted a third view in this regard in case reported as Indo-Swiss Time Ltd v. Umrao (AIR 1981 Punjab and Haryana 213). The Full Bench ruled in this case that when two conflicting judgments of the Supreme Court were there, then on principle the High Courts must follow the judgment which appears to it to lay down the law more elaborately and accurately. Thus the weight of two matching and conflicting judgments inevitably must be considered by the rationale and logic thereof and not by the mere fortuitous circumstances of the time and date on which they were rendered. The theory of pre-eminence of a judgment by virtue of its time and being the latest alone was thus conclusively laid to rest.

Thus in the field of binding precedents different High Courts have adopted different views with regard to the point as to which of the two conflicting judgments of co-equal Benches is binding upon them. It appears that by now there is no authoritative pronouncement on this subject by the Apex Court.

Then there is problem of judgments rendered per incuriam. The High Court of Bombay in Sita Ram v. Lachhman (AIR 1980 Bombay 55) held that a decision rendered in ignorance of a statute or rule having force of a statute is a decision delivered per incuriam and is not a binding precedent. On the same wave length is a judgment of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh in T. Ommiramma v. Tehsildar Kadiri (AIR 1980 A.P 267). Both the Bombay and Andhra Pradesh High Courts were, however, confronted with situations where some earlier judgments of these High Courts had been delivered in ignorance of some statutory provisions. Whether this doctrine of per incuriam rendering of judgments be invoked in the cases in which the Supreme Court has delivered judgments in ignorance of some statutory provisions of law is not yet clear, even though in Jaisri v. Rajdewan (AIR 1962 S.C. 83), this doctrine was invoked by their Lordships by observing that the court was not bound to follow decision of its own if given per incuriam. The Supreme Court relied upon Halsbury's Laws of England, third edition, Volume 22, para 1687 pp 799-800 wherein it has been observed that a decision is given per incuriam when the court has acted in ignorance of a previous decision of its own or of a court of co-ordinate jurisdiction which covered the case before it, or when it has acted in ignorance of a decision of the House of Lords.

From these observations it is not clear whether in the judgments rendered by the Final Court in ignorance of statutory provisions can be treated as judgments given per incuriam. Rather in B.M. Lakhani v. Malkapur Municipality (AIR 1970 S.C.1002), it was remarked that a Supreme Court decision is binding on High Courts and the same could not be ignored on the ground that relevant provisions of law were not brought to its notice. Thus this aspect of the controversy is also to be settled by the Apex Court.

I have adverted to the various judgments on various shades of precedents referred to in various judgments of the years 1970-1980. However, various other judgments have been rendered by the Apex Court and the various High Courts in recent year also, but the same also leave the situation in the same fluid condition. I am not burdening this write up with those judgments.

It is high time that the Final Court of this country should give authoritative pronouncements covering all these and other allied questions in the field of binding nature of precedents and only then certainty and uniformity in the legal field can be injected which is highly essential and desirable in an orderly society based upon rule of law. The Supreme Court has always been the cynosure of public hope and citizens look towards it at this moment when the nation is standing on the escalation of anarchy and corruption. The role of the Supreme Court in free India has been glorious. Hardly had the ink dried on the pages of the constitution, the Hon'ble Supreme Court had to deal with several important matters involving the interpretation of the provisions of the Constitution. Even though these problems were without precedents, yet the Apex Court handled all these matters aptly and deftly in such a manner that our Constitution today is not a jellyfish, but a highly evolved organism. People look to the courts as guarantors and protectors of civil liberties and any citizen of our republic can be legitimately proud of this august institution. Once again the citizens may focus their hopes on this hallowed institution for delivering authoritative pronouncements in the field of the binding nature of precedents under Article 141 of the Constitution of India.

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