A Message from Lord Hewart: The Guiding Principle Of Natural Justice

On January 19th, 2020, the Chief Justice of India in the matter related to the appointment of senior advocate Siddharth Luthra as amicus curiae in a case regarding resuming physical hearing in the High Court of Delhi observed that:

 “How is this a disqualification? Just because a person has expressed a view on the matter, that is not a disqualification to be a member of committee. Generally, there is a peculiar lack of comprehension about constitution of a committee. They are not judges.” 

He further asserted that the remarks are not just in the context of the instant case but a general observation. This immediately takes us to the order of the court on constituting a committee of four members over impugned farm laws in Rakesh Vaishnav v. Union of India (“Rakesh Vaishnav”). Later, on the following day, the CJI expressly adhered to his earlier remark as aforementioned with pointed reference to the committee. This article will analyze the observations of the Court in light of the principle of natural justice.

Justice Must Not Only Be Done But, It Must Be Seen As Done.

The principle of natural justice originated in the case of R v. Sussex Justices (“Sussex Justices”). In this case, Mr. McCarthy was riding a motorcycle that collided with another motorcycle driven by Mr. Whitworth. In the sidecar, Mr. Whitworth’s wife was accompanying him. The couple suffered injuries. In this regard, criminal action was instituted against McCarthy. Further, Whitworth engaged a firm of solicitors namely M/s. Langham, Son and Douglas to claim civil damages from McCarthy.

While the matter was before the court in Sussex, the deputy clerk to the justices was also a partner of the firm engaged by Whitworth on the civil side of the same matter. When the hearing of the matter concluded, the younger brother retired with the judges to their chamber. The court later declared McCarthy guilty.

In the appeal before the King’s Bench, McCarthy contended that the deputy clerk’s retirement with the judges before the verdict was delivered against him, makes the verdict improper. Further, the information that the firm where the Deputy Clerk was a partner was engaged to sue him for damages on the civil side of the matter was brought to the notice of the Court.

The celebrated Lord Hewart presided over the King’s Bench. Notices were issued to the Sussex Justices. In their affidavit, they submitted that the Deputy Clerk had scrupulously abstained from participating in any discussion regarding the case, and the decision was given in an unbiased manner. Lord Hewart accepted it. However, he remarked:

“Nothing is to be done which creates even a suspicion that there has been an improper interference with the course of justice…It is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”.

The other two judges on the King’s Bench concurred with Lord Hewart, and the decision rendered by the Court in Sussex was quashed.

Absence Of Bias Or Its Suspicion: Not An Exclusive Benchmark For Judges. 

The CJI’s remark that the members of the committee are not disqualified for they have expressed their views regarding the matter concerned as “…They are not judges.” However, such allegedly partisan views of the members of the committee generate the perception of ‘biases’ that defeat the principle that justice must be seen as done.  In Sussex Justices, the Deputy Clerk was also not a judge. He just retired with them to their rooms, and it raised the suspicion enough to eventually result in the quashing of the decision rendered by the Sussex Justices. 

The committee that was created by the court in Rakesh Vaishnav consisted of four members, and all four of them have expressed their views in favour of impugned farms laws. Later, a member even recused himself from being a part of the committee. It would not be an exaggeration to state, “A committee is a group of the unwilling, chosen from the unfit, to do the unnecessary” as noted by American journalist Richard Harkness.

The committee will be playing a significant role in the adjudication. It has been mandated with a task as substantial as submitting a report with ‘recommendations’ to the Supreme Court of India after hearing from the government as well as the representatives of the farmers.

In Sussex Justices, there was no involvement of the Deputy Clerk in the process of deciding the matter. as evident from acceptance of the affidavit submitted by the Sussex Justices to the King’s Bench. When the mandate of the Committee is contrasted against the involvement of the Deputy Clerk, we find that the degree of suspicion is scaled up in the present case. 

Hence, the unbalanced Committee, grossly involved to the extent of working under a mandate to submit its recommendations to the apex court, makes the order of the Court highly improper with recent remarks being not appropriate to suffice for the reasoning of appointing such Committee. 

The article has been co-authored by Aditya Puri and Shubham Saxena. Both of them are reading Law at National Law University, Jabalpur.

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