What is natural justice?
Natural justice refers to impartial, fair treatment and equitable adjudication of all, ensuring protection of rights from arbitrary procedures and miscarriage of justice. Derived from the expression “jus naturale” in Roman Law, while it may not receive formal statutory codification, the principles are derived from common law principles and are to be adhered to. It is the soul and foundation on which the delivery of justice is based, and the minimum protection of the rights of the individual against the arbitrary procedure.
These principles do not supplant the law of the land but act as supplementary to it, and as firmly established by several judgements, in the absence of any express provisions dispensing the observance of natural justice principles, they are to be followed in all judicial, quasi-judicial and administrative proceedings, as stated in AK Kraipak v. Union of India and Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India.
Broadly, Natural Justice may be understood to encompass two principles:
- Nemo Judex in causa sua or Nemo debet esse judex in propria causa or Rule against bias (No man shall be a judge in his own cause).
- Audi Alteram partem or the rule of fair hearing (the right of the other side to be heard).
Several ancilliary principles may also be drawn from the equitable principles of natural justice. This may include, but is not limited to, the notice of hearing, right to legal representation, a reasoned judgement and an adequate remedy, all of which ensure a fair and just decision and prevent the miscarriage of justice.
Official Definitions/Relevant Legal Provisions
As stated earlier, the principles of natural justice do not have any literal legal codification, but rather, are equitable principles whose spirit is embodied in several provisions of the Constitution.
For instance, Article 14 of the Constitution, guaranteeing equality before the law and equal protection of the law, Forbids discriminatory laws and administrative action. The Article prevents manifestly arbitrary action, prejudiced exercise of discretionary power and guarantees fair treatment, principles which closely align with those of natural justice. In Delhi Transport Corporation v. DTC Mazdoor Union, the Supreme Court held that “the audi alteram partem rule, in essence, enforces the equality clause in Article 14 of the Constitution, is applicable not only to quasi-judicial bodies but also to an administrative order adversely affecting the party unless the rule has been excluded by the act in question”. Additionally, in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, the principles of natural justice were understood to be an integral part of the Constitution, embodied in Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution, the well-recognised “golden triangle”. Article 21 of the constitution provides for no deprivation of life of personal liberty unless by the “procedure established by law” and therefore, this recognition of personal liberty and due process can be understood as consistent with the principles of natural justice.
Apart from fundamental rights, the principles of natural justice find their way into several other provisions of the Constitution and several other legal statutes. For instance, Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution provide for constitutional remedies for the violation of fundamental rights and other statutory rights, by issuance of an appropriate writ. The issuance of writs such as Habeas Corpus, literally translating to “you have the body”, mandamus and quo warranto are all an embodiment of the principles of natural justice.
The purposes of the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987, align with the natural justice principle of provision of legal aid, especially to the weaker sections of society. To this effect, Section 22D of the Act specifically mentions that the permanent Lok Adalat is to be “guided by the principles of natural justice, objectivity, fair play, equity and other principles of justice”.
In the context of administrative tribunals, Section 22 of the Administrative Tribunals Act, 1985 states that such tribunals are to be guided by the principles of natural justice. Having mentioned the central tribunals referral to principles of natural justice, a similar provision exists for the NCLT and the NCLAT, to be guided by the principles of natural justice according to the Companies Act, 2013. A very similar phraseology may be observed in the Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, and the Railways Claims Tribunal Act which, in addition to granting inherent powers, provides for guidance of the Debt Recovery Tribunal and Railway Claims Tribunal respectively, by the principles of natural justice. Provisions governing the Real Estate Regulatory Authority, the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Authority, the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity, the Securities Appellate Tribunal state that such tribunals are to be guided by the principles of natural justice in discharge of their functions. This extends to other bodies, including the Special Court for Trial of Securities Transactions Offences and let alone larger statutory bodies; the Gram Nyayalayas are to be guided by the principles of natural justice too, according to the Gram Nyayalayas Act, 2008.
Statutory provisions have also made indirect references to the principles of natural justice. For instance, Section 18 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act mandates the equal treatment of parties and provision of an equal opportunity for parties to present their case. In the context of enforceability of foreign judgements, Section 13, CPC, upon failure to comply with the principles of natural justice, a foreign judgment cannot be deemed conclusive, reinforcing the proposition that the failure to comply with the principles of natural justice can vitiate proceedings.
Such provisions are simply a few among several statutory and constitutional provisions that emerge from the principles of natural justice and, as stated earlier, although the lack formal legal codification, the spirit of the principles are embodied within the law in India, and failure to abide by the principles of natural justice can vitiate proceedings, as a mandatory, integral part of the law
Types of Natural Justice
Nemo Judex in causa sua or the rule against bias-
Popularly known as the Doctrine of Bias, it states that nobody can be a judge in a case where they have an interest, as the authority deciding the judgement is to be impartial and to act without bias. Bias is often categorized into three categories, namely, pecuniary bias, personal bias, and official bias.
Pecuniary bias refers to the potential monetary/economic interest of the adjudicator or judge in judging the subject matter of the case; the Court considers the probability of bias and does not require proof of actual bias to invalidate the right to serve as judge. An illustration of the same may be drawn from Mohapatra v. State of Orissa, where it was held that when the author of a book was a member of the committee set up for selection of books, and his book was also under consideration by that committee, the possibility of bias could not be ruled out and the selection by that committee cannot be upheld.
Personal bias refers to bias that may arise out of the relationship between the adjudicator/judge and the parties, causing a prejudice of any kind and here too, credence is given to the possibility of bias rather than actual resultant bias. This is due to the fact that it is difficult to prove the state of mind of the person, leading to the court to rely on there being reasonable grounds for belief of bias, as stated in AK Kraipak v. Union of India. For instance, in Tata Motors Limited v. Government of West Bengal, on the constitutional validity of Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, Justice Saumitra Pal recused himself from the case, citing that he knew individuals connected with the case personally.
Official bias may arise due to the adjudicator’s general interest in the subject matter and the administration of policy in official capacity, and rarely ever serves as a disqualification, unlike the other forms of bias. It may arise when, for instance, an administrator entrusted with carrying out implementation of an official policy, must hear objections from concerned persons as to such implementation. In Viraj v. State of Orissa, it was held that no official bias arises while senior officers adjudicate the Customs or Central Excise or Service Tax cases, even though the investigations in the case might have been conducted by their subordinates.
Audi Alteram partem or the rule of fair hearing-
The Second Principle of Natural Justice states that no individual shall be condemned unheard, as the opportunity of hearing is a a necessary element to ensure a fair procedure. The principle consists of two limbs- the obligation of notice and the requirement of fair hearing.
The obligation of notice is the first limb of this principle. The notice must be precise, unambiguous, appraise the party adequately of the case, and provide adequate time for preparation of representation. Failure to provide these elements can vitiate the procedure and lead to a miscarriage of justice. For instance, in KD Gupta v. Union of India, it was held that where notice regarding one charge is given, an individual cannot be punished for a wholly different charge without notice or opportunity of hearing.
This requirement of notice involves several ancillary principles too. For instance, it extends to the indication of evidence being relied upon too, to ensure that the person will have a fair opportunity to defend, correct or contradict them (Kanda v. Govt. of Malaya). This right to make representation also involves grant of sufficient time to prepare the reply (Jeramandas Punjabi Vs. UOI).
The second limb of this principle is the right to fair hearing. The right to fair hearing encompasses several aspects, including, for instance, the right to cross-examination, held as an integral part of natural justice in the case of AK Roy v. Union of India. Additionally, the right of fair hearing includes the right of representation by legal counsel, as an essential element in fair trial.
At the judgement stage, a relevant right is that of a speaking, reasoned order, as a safeguard against arbitrary decisions by providing a fair justification for the Court’s decision. In Ajantha Industries v. Central Board of Direct Taxes, the court has held that recordings of reasons on the file are not sufficient; it is necessary to give reasons to the person concerned and due to a lack of such communication, the order was quashed.
Various legal systems around the world have recognized the importance of the principles of justice, with minor variations in their interpretation and application.
For instance, the English legal system recognizes the principles of natural justice as critical to decisions, contributing significantly to the development of Equity, a body parallel to Common Law, which also recognized natural justice. Day v. Savadge established that an Act of Parliament against natural equity is void. A plethora of cases have provided due recognition to both principles- firstly, the principle against bias, that no person can be a judge in their own case, was first recognized in the landmark case of Dimes v. Grand Junction Canal as early as 1852. The principle of audi alteram partem and it’s various requirements of notice and fair hearing have been recognized by English Courts too, including the parties’ right to hearing, contesting their opponents’ case, cross-examination, presenting witnesses and several other ancillary principles, as stated in Grimshaw v. Dunbar.
The American Legal System too, follows the principles of natural justice in administration of justice. Aside from recognition of the aforementioned principles, emphasis has been placed on the Constitutional Principle of “due process”, in the absence of which no person can be deprived of their life, liberty or property. A clear extension of the principles of natural justice which may be observed in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the phrase connotes reasonable fairness and the absence of arbitrary action by the government, and has been repeatedly cited in various jurisdictions, including India.
Shifting the focus to international law, Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice refers to “General Principles of Law, as recognized by Civilized Nations” as one of the major sources of international law. While the phrase refers to several general legal principles including res judicata and good faith, it can be said to include the rule against bias and fair hearing, both of the principles of natural justice. Thus, the principles of natural justice may be considered so fundamental that they transcend territorial jurisdictions and also serve as a critical source of international law.
- Uma Nath Pandey v. State of Uttar Pradesh AIR 2009 SC 2375.
- AK Kraipak v. Union of India (AIR 1970 SC 150)
- Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (AIR 1978 SC 597)
- Delhi Transport Corporation v. DTC Mazdoor Union AIR 1991 SC 101
- Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India AIR 1978 SC 597
- Section 22D, Legal Services Authority Act, 1987.
- Section 22(1), The Administrative Tribunals Act, 1985.
- Section 424, The Companies Act, 2013.
- Section 22, The Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993.
- Section 18 in The Railway Claims Tribunal Act, 1987
- Section 38, Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, 2016.
- Section 38, Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, 2016.
- Section 120, The Electricity Act, 2003.
- Section 15U, The Securities and Exchange Bureau of India Act, 1992.
- Section 9(4), The Special Court (Trial of Offences Relating to Transactions in Securities) Act, 1992.
- Section 25, The Gram Nyayalayas Act, 2008.
- Section 18, The Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996.
- Section 13, The Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.
- Mohapatra v. State of Orissa (AIR 1984 SC 1572)
- Point 8, https://nacin.gov.in/resources/file/e-books/Principles%20of%20natural%20justice.pdf
- AK Kraipak v. Union of India AIR 1970 SC 150
- Tata Motors Limited v. Government of West Bengal 2011 SCC Online Cal 3915.
- Point 9, https://nacin.gov.in/resources/file/e-books/Principles%20of%20natural%20justice.pdf
- Viraj v. State of Orissa 1967 SC 158
- KD Gupta v. Union of India  3 SCR 646
- Kanda v. Govt. of Malaya 1962 A.C. 322
- Jeramandas Punjabi Vs. Union of India 1992 (57) ELT 36 BOM
- AK Roy v. Union of India (1982) 1 SCC 271
- Ajantha Industries v. Central Board of Direct Taxes 1976 AIR 437
- Day v. Savadge (1614) 80 ER 235
- Dimes v. Grand Junction Canal (1852) 3 HLC 579
- Grimshaw v. Dunbar  1 QB 408
- Prashant Singh , Application of Principle of Natural Justice by Supreme Court of India, 6 (3) IJLMH Page 1882 - 1930 (2023), DOI: https://doij.org/10.10000/IJLMH.115044