The Supreme Court is the highest adjudicatory authority in the country and the final interpreter of the law. Its decisions are final and binding on all the lower courts and the people. As the final court of appeal, the Supreme Court carries out the herculean task of adjudicating cases and bring finality to the disputes and the position of law. This finality is not akin to infallibility. Human errors are inevitable, even when it comes to people with unparalleled intelligence, experience, and a sense of justice. These erroneous judgments may be final; however, they cannot be allowed to stand and dictate the interpretation of the law as it would result in a miscarriage of justice. This fallibility was accounted for at the time of drafting the Constitution of India. Therefore, in rare cases, the Supreme Court decisions may be set aside for justice to prevail.
It is well settled that an appeal may lie to the higher courts when the parties to a case are dissatisfied with the decision pronounced by a court. Therefore, an appeal may be preferred before the High Court against an order of the District Court and similarly before the Supreme Court against an order of the High Court. It is at the Supreme Court that the decision becomes final and binding on the parties against which no appeal lies. When a verdict is passed to settle a disputed point of law, it becomes a precedent and the Courts are bound to stand by that precedent. It will not be considered anew or be opened to an examination unless it is completely absurd or unjustified. This is based on the doctrine of stare decisis that is enshrined in Article 141 of the Constitution.
This doctrine sets the hierarchy of Courts, brings consistency to the decisions, and promotes fair and efficient adjudication of disputes. All the lower courts are bound to follow the legal principles set by the Supreme Court and these must not be disturbed. The application of stare decisis doctrine is well-settled and necessary in the administration of justice; however, it is not a doctrine without some exceptions. In some cases, the precedents set may be overruled. The Supreme Court while being superior is not infallible as seen in many instances throughout the years. The doctrine of stare decisis is flexible enough to accommodate changes for the dispensation of justice. The judgments of the Supreme Court can be set aside if it is wholly unjust, unreconcilable with the times or not in concurrence with the intention of the lawmakers. The methods to set aside erroneous judgments of the Supreme Court are outlined below.
The Supreme Court itself has the power to review any judgement or order made by it under Article 137 of the Indian Constitution. Having said that, it is pertinent to note that these powers are limited. Since the judgment of the Court is final, review jurisdiction cannot be invoked merely because the party is dissatisfied with the verdict as a review is distinct from an appeal. Review powers are exercised with limitations. In Aribam Tuleshwar Sharma v. Aribam Pishak Sharma ((1979) 4 SCC 389), the Supreme Court ruled that review petition maybe maintainable when a) new and important evidence is discovered which, after the exercise of due diligence was not within the knowledge of the party seeking the review or could not be produced at the time of the order b) there exists some mistake or error apparent on the face of the record c) on any other analogous ground.
This principle has been reiterated in various judgments including Northern Indian Carters v Lt. Governor of Delhi (1980 AIR 674), where it was held that the normal rule is that the judgement of the Supreme Court is final. Departure from this by way of a review petition is permissible only when “circumstances of a substantial and compelling character make it necessary to do so”. Despite this limitation, it appears that litigants tend to file review petitions more frequently as a legal strategy. This is discouraged as it undermines the Courts and their efforts to adjudicate a case with the proper application of minds. Further, mass review petitions question the competence of the honourable judges and the judicial system. This tendency should be avoided as a review petition is not intended for a rehearing of a case but only used in rare circumstances in the interest of justice.
A larger bench of the Supreme Court may be constituted to hear a case previously decided by the Court and this bench can overrule the previous decision. In Shah Faesal v Union Of India (2020 SCC OnLine SC 263), the Court debated the scope to refer a matter to a larger bench. It concluded that this power is not to be used casually as the doctrine of stare decisis is an indispensable bedrock in the administration of justice. A reference is not made for minor inconsistencies between co-ordinate Benches but rather when doubt is expressed about the correctness of law laid down in a precedent. A larger bench may be constituted when a contradictory view is expressed in by a Bench of the same strength subsequent to an established precedent or when a settled legal proposition has become unworkable and development is demanded by a social, constitutional, or economical change in the society.
Additionally, the effect of such a judgment would generally have a retrospective effect since the Supreme Court interprets the law, rather than make new laws. It is assumed that the law is as has always been and therefore, the decision of the previous court is a nullity. This position is well settled and has been followed in a catena of judgements. However, Golak Nath v Union of India ((1967) 2 SCR 762) introduced “prospective overruling” and refused to give a retrospective effect to its decision. This prevented earlier decided cases from re-opening and propounded the principle that “the past cannot always be erased”. In certain cases, the Courts have prescribed limits of the effect of overruling to avoid administrative chaos. however, the Court in Asstt. Commissioner v. Saurashtra Kutch Stock Exchange ((2008) 14 SCC 171), clarified that prospective overruling doctrine is an exception and retrospective application is the norm as the Court merely discovered of the correct principle of law that was previously misunderstood.
The Separation of power doctrine is sufficiently applicable in India and the powers of the legislature and the judiciary are distinct. While the legislature cannot directly overrule or set aside a judgment rendered by the Court by a mere declaration, it can enact laws to make the decision ineffective. The Supreme Court in Indian Aluminium Co. v State of Kerala ((JT 1996 (2) SC 85) held that the legislature can enact laws within its competence to fundamentally change the character of law with retrospective application. This could render judgments ineffective by altering the legal basis on which the judgment was rendered as if these altered legal bases or conditions existed at the adjudication of the case the same decision would not have been concluded by the Court. This legal position has been applied in many instances where the legislation has enacted laws with retrospective effects to render a judgment ineffective.
It has also been held in Gurudevdatta VKSS Maryadit v State of Maharashtra (2001 (4) SCC 534), inter alia that questioning the intention of the legislation for passing a statute when considering its validity is beyond the scope of the judiciary. The test would be to check legislative competence to enact laws on that topic and the conformant with the Constitution and therefore, the question of whether the law was passed to evade a judgment is futile. This is one way by which the legislature has time and again circumvented judicial decisions. While the legislature is subject to judicial review, the legislature can effectively set aside a judgment by retrospectively changing the law. Such instances are adjudicated upon on a case to case basis by relying upon the principles propounded in the Indian Aluminium case. This highlights the checks and balances in place in our democratic system and the tussle between the legislature and the judiciary.
It is clear that the judgments rendered by the Supreme Court are conclusive and have an air of finality. However, in some circumstances, these judgments may be set aside in the interest of justice. The Supreme Court can re-examine the correctness of its own decisions if it is considered necessary to do so as the dispensation of justice is the priority of our judicial system. Nevertheless, it must be kept in mind that the re-examination is necessarily an exception and not a right. These powers must be used sparingly to avoid undermining the justice system and raising doubts about the competency of the judges. The Parliament can also clarify the legal position by way of retrospective laws and render judgments ineffective. In this way, fallibility and human errors are kept at a minimum and an opportunity to correct a wrong is granted even after adjudication by the Supreme Court has taken place.
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