“Suo Motu” is a legal term having its origin in Latin, which simply means “on its own accord”. When a case or a matter is taken over by a High Court or the Supreme Court under its control and initiate proceedings against the same, it is known as a “Suo Moto action”. In various instances, the legal proceedings were initiated by the courts on their own, based on the telegrams, media reports and letters from the aggrieved parties received by them.
The principle behind Courts taking up Suo Moto action is to provide justice to everyone and even to the people who would not be in, a position to afford it. This has given the people a hope that when a wrong or mistake is committed against a large number of people or if there is anything that breaches the fundamental rights of the people at large, then the Court would take action against the same by exercising its Suo Moto power.
This article expounds on the concept of Suo Moto Cognizance power of the Indian Courts and the evolution of this concept in India. It further discusses the Constitutional provisions that deal with this subject and, also sheds light upon a few case laws which were taken up by both the Supreme Court and High Courts by making use of their Suo Moto power.
The Constitutional Courts’ perspective of understanding the fundamental rights changed after India experienced Internal Emergency between 1975 and 1977. The scope of the fundamental rights expanded and acknowledged in a very broadened way.
This enlarged scope had elucidated the concept of “Public Interest Litigation” which we say as PIL. With this, the rule of Locus standi was eased.
In the case of S. P. Gupta v. Union of India[i], Justice P.N. Bhagwati explained the concept of PIL. It was said that if a person or a group of persons has suffered from any legal wrong or legal injury wherein the person or the group of persons by the reason of poverty, helplessness or economical disadvantages is not able to approach the court, then a member of the public can file an application regarding the same on their behalf, in the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution and in the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution.
The concept of PIL operates in an effective way in a democratic country like India, as it acts as a powerful tool in changing society and, also in its social welfare. It gives a vast interpretation of the Right to Equality, Right to Liberty, and Right to Life which are fundamental rights enshrined under Part-III of the Constitution.
Evolution of Suo Motu Concept
Over a period, the stretch of the PIL jurisdiction has also been enlarged. The Courts also included letter petitions and took Suo moto cognizance of the aggrieved parties whose fundamental rights were infringed, in the realisation of their role as the only protectors of individuals’ fundamental rights.
One of the first recognized letter petitions was of Sunil Batra’s petition. He is a prisoner who wrote a letter to one of the judges, Krishna Iyer complaining about the brutal assault against one of his co-prisoners. The letter was brought into the notice of the Supreme Court, where the Apex Court considered it as a PIL and had taken Suo Motu cognizance. And in the same case that is Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration and Ors.,[ii]the Supreme Court issued guidelines that are to be followed by the jails for the administration of prison justice.
Courts Exercising Suo Motu Power
Insofar the Courts in India have taken Suo Motu cognizance under three main instances. They are as follows:
- Order Probe for a New Case: If a Court thinks that any injustice is being committed against a person or a section of people at any phase by a police department, a government agency or governmental authorities, CBI, or a few others of the same sort. It may also take the Suo moto action on receiving letters from the disadvantaged person or the section of people, or based on the news, any documentary, or any media source on the same subject.
Court on its own motion v. Union of India and Ors[iii].:
In this case, the Supreme Court took Suo Moto notice of certain newspapers which reported 67 deaths of the pilgrims who went on Amarnath yatra. The Court found that most of the deaths were due to cardiac arrests and other reasons. The Court appropriately dealt with this as a serious subject of lack of medical facilities in the Public interest.
Here, the Court initiated Suo moto action by taking into consideration the basic amenities that the pilgrims lack. This was done in the Public interest.
- Reopen of Old Cases: There are a few occasions in which the Courts may discover new evidence or substantial evidence after the case is closed. Under these circumstances, the Courts have the Suo Motu power to reopen the case and try again.
District Co-operative Bank Ltd. Vs. Badri Ram and Ors.[iv]:
The Allahabad High Court decided this case and closed it. But certain provisions under it were not brought into the notice of the judge. Therefore, the court Suo Moto initiated review proceedings in this case.
- Contempt of Court: When a person acts in such a way that goes against the rules and regulations of the court or prevents in delivering the justice and confronts the Court’s dignity, then the Court can initiate Suo moto proceedings under the same.
In Re: Arundhati Roy v. Unknown[v]:
The Supreme Court initiated Suo moto contempt proceedings against Arundhati Roy. The Court discovered that the author published an article entitled “The Greater Common Good” in Outlook Magazine, in which she made comments on the Indian Judiciary which were prima facie a misrepresentation of the Court proceedings in India.
In this case, the Court exercised its Suo moto powers to take, action against the contempt of court.
The Constitution gives power to the Supreme Court and the High Courts to take Suo Motu action when there is a case of Contempt of Court, under Article-129 and Article-215, respectively.
Article-129: The Supreme Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself.
Article-215: Every High Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself.
In case of breach or violation of fundamental rights of people, a PIL can be filed in the Supreme Court. According to the requirement, the Courts may take up the cases into their own hands and act i.e., take a Suo moto action. So, in the cases of violation of fundamental rights, the Supreme Court and the High Court may take the Suo moto action under the Article-32 and Article-226 of the Constitution, respectively.
Article-32, under this Article the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction to entertain the cases related to the enforcement of the fundamental rights. And, the Apex Court has the power to take up the cases and initiate proceedings, that are pending before the High Courts of any State.
Article-226 provides the power to the High Courts to initiate legal action on their cognizance based on the information or PIL that they receive from media or any third party.
Also, in case of any dispute arising between two States or between the Centre and a State, the Supreme Court is vested with the power to take up such cases straight by exercising its Suo moto power rather than reviewing a lower court’s judgment on the same subject. This power is provided under the Article-131 of the Constitution.
The concept of Suo moto cognizance has democratized the Judicial process in India. This has become another way to enforce the fundamental rights of people effectively and efficiently. The Courts in India, after the introduction of the concept of Suo moto cognizance, have made sure that the State Governments and the Central Government are monitored properly and Justice is not denied to the aggrieved person merely due to his economic and social conditions. This facilitates public participation in the Judicial process and, also enlarges the scope of Part-III of the Constitution.
[i]S. P. Gupta v. Union of India , AIR 1982 S.C 149
[ii]Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration and Ors., 1978 AIR 1675, 1979 SCR (1) 392, 1978 SCC (4) 494
[iii]Court on its own motion v. Union of India and Ors., AIR 2012 SCC 284
[iv]District Co-operative Bank Ltd. Vs. Badri Ram and Ors., 2002 (4) AWC 3194, 2002 (95) FLR 343, (2003) 1 UPLBEC 207
[v]In Re: Arundhati Roy v. UnknownAIR 2002 SC 1375.
Q.1. What is Suo moto cognizance?
“Suo Motu” is a legal term having its origin in Latin, which simply means “on its own accord”. When a case or a matter is taken over by a High Court or the Supreme Court under its control and initiate proceedings against the same, it is known as a “Suo moto cognizance”.
Q.2. Do High Courts also have the power to initiate Suo moto proceedings?
The Constitution gives power to the High Courts to take Suo Motu action when it is required. The High Court can Suo moto initiate proceedings when there is a case of contempt of case, under Article-215 and Article-226, provides the power to the High Courts to initiate legal action on their cognizance based on the information or PIL that they receive from media or any third party.
Q.3. Can a newspaper article or a letter to a judge be converted into a Petition by the Courts?
Yes, a newspaper article or a letter to a judge can be converted into a petition by the Courts. There are many cases under which the Supreme Court and High Courts when they came to know through news, any media source or by any letter, about an issue that was causing disadvantage to the people at large or in other words breaching their fundamental rights, the Courts took up the cases into their own hands and acted accordingly i.e., Suo moto action.
Q.4. Under which Article can a person file PIL for enforcement of the fundamental rights?
A member of the public representing the disadvantaged person or the section of people of that sort can file an application (PIL) regarding the issue on their behalf, in the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution and in the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution.
Q.5. What is a Contempt of Court?
Any form of conduct by a person that causes disobedience or disrespect towards a Court of law and challenges the dignity of the Court is called as Contempt of Court. Contempt of Court is a serious offense.