Judicial Review

The Judiciary plays a very important role as a protector of the constitutional values that the founding fathers have given us. They try to undo the harm that is being done by the legislature and the executive and also they try to provide every citizen what has been promised by the Constitution under the Directive Principles of State Policy. All this is possible thanks to the power of judicial review.


All this is not achieved in a day it took 50 long years for where we are right now, if one thinks that it is has been a roller coaster ride without any hindrances they are wrong judiciary has been facing the brunt of many politicians, technocrats, academicians, lawyers etc. Few of them being genuine concerns, and among one of them is the aspect of corruption and power of criminal contempt. In this paper I would try to highlight the ups and downs of this greatest institution in India.




The rule of law is the bedrock of democracy, and the primary responsibility for implementation of the rule of law lies with the judiciary.1 This is now a basic feature of every constitution, which cannot be altered even by the exercise of new powers from parliament. It is the significance of judicial review, to ensure that democracy is inclusive and that there is accountability of everyone who wields or exercises public power. As Edmund Burke said: “all persons in positions of power ought to be strongly and lawfully impressed with an idea that “they act in trust,” and must account for their conduct to one great master, to those in whom the political sovereignty rests, the people”.2




India opted for parliamentary form of democracy, where every section is involved in policy-making, and decision taking, so that every point of view is reflected and there is a fair representation of every section of the people in every such body. In this kind of inclusive democracy, the judiciary has a very important role to play. That is the concept of accountability in any republican democracy, and this basic theme has to be remembered by everybody exercising public power, irrespective of the extra expressed expositions in the constitution.3




The principle of judicial review became an essential feature of written Constitutions of many countries. Seervai in his book Constitutional Law of India noted that the principle of judicial review is a familiar feature of the Constitutions of Canada, Australia and India, though the doctrine of Separation of Powers has no place in strict sense in Indian Constitution, but the functions of different organs of the Government have been sufficiently differentiated, so that one organ of the Government could not usurp the functions of another.4


The power of judicial review has in itself the concept of separation of powers an essential component of the rule of law, which is a basic feature of the Indian Constitution. Every State action has to be tested on the anvil of rule of law and that exercise is performed, when occasion arises by the reason of a doubt raised in that behalf, by the courts. The power of Judicial Review is incorporated in Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution insofar as the High Courts are concerned. In regard to the Supreme Court Articles 32 and 136 of the Constitution, the judiciary in India has come to control by judicial review every aspect of governmental and public functions.5




Extent of Judicial Review in India:


The initial years of the Supreme Court of India saw the adoption of an approach characterised by caution and circumspection. Being steeped in the British tradition of limited judicial review, the Court generally adopted a pro-legislature stance. This is evident form the rulings such as A.K. Gopalan, but however it did not take long for judges to break their shackles and this led to a series of right to property cases in which the judiciary was loggerhead with the parliament. The nation witnessed a series of events where a decision of the Supreme Court was followed by a legislation nullifying its effect, followed by another decision reaffirming the earlier position, and so on. The struggle between the two wings of government continued on other issues such as the power of amending the Constitution.6 During this era, the Legislature sought to bring forth people-oriented socialist measures which when in conflict with fundamental rights were frustrated on the upholding of the fundamental rights of individuals by the Supreme Court. At the time, an effort was made to project the Supreme Court as being concerned only with the interests of propertied classes and being insensitive to the needs of the masses. Between 1950 and 1975, the Indian Supreme Court had held a mere one hundred Union and State laws, in whole or in part, to be unconstitutional.


After the period of emergency the judiciary was on the receiving end for having delivered a series of judgments which were perceived by many as being violative of the basic human rights of Indian citizens 7and changed the way it looked at the constitution. The Supreme Court said that any legislation is amenable to judicial review, be it momentous amendments8 to the Constitution or drawing up of schemes and bye-laws of municipal bodies which affect the life of a citizen9. Judicial review extends to every governmental or executive action – from high policy matters like the President’s power to issue a proclamation on failure of constitutional machinery in the States like in Bommai case, to the highly discretionary exercise of the prerogative of pardon like in Kehar Singh case  or the right to go abroad as in Satwant Singh case.Judicial review knows no bounds except the restraint of the judges themselves regarding justifiability of an issue in a particular case.


Judicial Review of Political Questions:


In the initial stages of the judicial adjudication Courts have said that where there is a political question involved it is not amenable to judicial review but slowly this changed, in Keshavananda Bharathi’s case,10 the Court held that, “it is difficult to see how the power of judicial review makes the judiciary supreme in any sense of the word. This power is of paramount importance in a federal constitution…. Judicial Review of constitutional amendments may seem involving the Court in political question, but it is the Court alone which can decide such an issue. The function of Interpretation of a Constitution being thus assigned to the judicial power the State, the question whether the subject of law is within the ambit of one or more powers of the legislature conferred by the constitution would always be a question of interpretation of the Constitution.”


Than it was in Special Courts Bill, 1978, In re, case where the majority opined that, “The policy of the Bill and the motive of the mover to ensure a speedy trial of persons holding high public or political office who are alleged to have committed certain crimes during the period of emergency may be political, but the question whether the bill or any provisions are constitutionally invalid is a not a question of a political nature and the court should not refrain from answering it.” What this meant was that though there are political questions involved the validity of any action or legislation can be challenged if it would violate the constitution. This position has been reiterated in many other cases11 and in S.R. Bommai’s case the Court held, “though subjective satisfaction of the President cannot be reviewed but the material on which satisfaction is based open to review…” the court further went on to say that, “The opinion which the President would form on the basis of Governor’s report or otherwise would be based on his political judgment and it is difficult to evolve judicially manageable norms for scrutinizing such political decisions. Therefore, by the very nature of things which would govern the decision-making under Article 356, it is difficult to hold that the decision of the president is justiciable. To do so would be entering the political thicker and questioning the political wisdom which the courts of law must avoid. The temptation to delve into the President’s satisfaction may be great but the courts would be well advised to resist the temptation for want of judicially manageable standards. Therefore, the Court cannot interdict the use of the constitutional power conferred on the President under Article 356 unless the same is shown to be male fide.”


As Soli Sorabjee points out, “there is genuine concern about misuse by the Centre of Article 356 on the pretext that the State Government is acting in defiance of the essential features of the Constitution. The real safeguard will be full judicial review extending to an inquiry into the truth and correctness of the basic facts relied upon in support of the action under Article 356 as indicated by Justices Sawant and Kuldip Singh. If in certain cases that entails evaluating the sufficiency of the material, so be it.”


What this meant was the judiciary was being cautious about the role it has to play while adjudicating matters of such importance and it is showing a path of restraint that has to be used while deciding such matters so that it does not usurp the powers given by the Constitution by way of the power of review at the same it is also minimizing the misusing of the power given under Article 356 to the President.


Judicial Review as a part of the Basic Structure:


In the celebrated case of Keshavanda Bharathi v. State of Kerela, the Supreme Court of India the propounded the basic structure doctrine according to which it said the legislature can amend the Constitution, but it should not change the basic structure of the Constitution, The Judges made no attempt to define the basic structure of the Constitution in clear terms. S.M. Sikri, C.J mentioned five basic features:


  1. Supremacy of the Constitution. 2. Republican and democratic form of Government. 3. Secular character of the Constitution. 4. Separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. 5. Federal character of the Constitution.

He observed that these basic features are easily discernible not only from the Preamble but also from the whole scheme of the Constitution. He added that the structure was built on the basic foundation of dignity and freedom of the individual which could not by any form of amendment be destroyed. It was also observed in that case that the above are only illustrative and not exhaustive of all the limitations on the power of amendment of the Constitution. The Constitutional bench in Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain (1975 Supp SCC 1.) held that Judicial Review in election disputes was not a compulsion as it is not a part of basic structure. In S.P. Sampath Kumar v. Union of India((1987) 1 SCC 124 at 128.), P.N. Bhagwati, C.J., relying on Minerva Mills Ltd. ((1980) 3 SCC 625.) declared that it was well settled that judicial review was a basic and essential feature of the Constitution. If the power of judicial review was absolutely taken away, the Constitution would cease to be what it was. In Sampath Kumar the Court further declared that if a law made under Article 323-A(1) were to exclude the jurisdiction of the High Court under Articles 226 and 227 without setting up an effective alternative institutional mechanism or arrangement for judicial review, it would be violative of the basic structure and hence outside the constituent power of Parliament.


In Kihoto Hollohan v. Zachillhur (1992 Supp (2) SCC 651, 715, para 120) another Constitution Bench, while examining the validity of para 7 of the Tenth Schedule to the Constitution which excluded judicial review of the decision of the Speaker/Chairman on the question of disqualification of MLAs and MPs, observed that it was unnecessary to pronounce on the contention whether judicial review is a basic feature of the Constitution and para 7 of the Tenth Schedule violated such basic structure.


Subsequently, in L. Chandra Kumar v. Union of India ((1997) 3 SCC 261) a larger Bench of seven Judges unequivocally declared:


“that the power of judicial review over legislative action vested in the High Courts under Article 226 and in the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution is an integral and essential feature of the Constitution, constituting part of its basic structure”.


Though one does not deny that power to review is very important, at the same time one cannot also give an absolute power to review and by recognizing judicial review as a part of basic feature of the constitution Courts in India have given a different meaning to the theory of Check’s and Balances this also meant that it has buried the concept of separation of powers, where the judiciary will give itself an unfettered jurisdiction to review any thing every thing that is done by the legislature.


Expansion of Judicial Review through Judicial Activism:


After the draconian exposition of power by the Executive and the Legislature during Emergency the expectations of the public soared high and the demands on the courts to improve the administration by giving appropriate directions for ensuring compliance with statutory and constitutional prescriptions. Likewise the judiciary has taken an activist view the Beginning with the Ratlam Municipality case 12the sweep of Social Action Litigation13 had encompassed a variety of causes14.


With the interpretation given by it in Menaka Gandhi case the Supreme Court brought the ambit of constitutional provisions to enforce the human rights of citizens and sought to bring the Indian law in conformity with the global trends in human-rights-jurisprudence. This was made possible in India, because of the procedural innovations with a view to making itself more accessible to disadvantaged sections of society giving rise to the phenomenon of Social Action Litigation/Public Interest Litigation15. During the Eighties and the first half of the Nineties, the Court have broken there shackle’s and moved much ahead from being a mere legal institution, its decisions have tremendous social, political and economic ramifications. Time and again, it has sought to interpret constitutional provisions and the objectives sought to be achieved by it and directed the executive to comply with its orders.


SAL, a manifestation of judicial activism, has introduced a new dimension regarding judiciary’s involvement in public administration16. The sanctity of locus standi and the procedural complexities are totally side-tracked in the causes brought before the courts through SAL. In the beginning, the application of SAL was confined only to improving the lot of the disadvantaged sections of the society who by reason of their poverty and ignorance were not in a position to seek justice from the courts and, therefore, any member of the public was permitted to maintain an application for appropriate directions17.


The new role of the Supreme Court has been criticised in some quarters as being violative of the doctrine of separation of powers; it is claimed that the Apex Court has, by formulating policy and issuing directions in respect of various aspects of the country’s administration, transgressed into the domain of the executive and the legislature. As Justice Cardozo puts it, “A Constitution states or ought to state not rules for the passing hour but principles for an expanding future.”18 It is with this view that innovations in the rules of standing have come into existence.


Limitation on the power of review:


The expansion of the horizon of judicial review is seen both with reverence and suspicion; reverence in as much as the judicial review is a creative element of interpretation, which serves as an omnipresent and potentially omnipotent check on the legislative and executive branches of government. But at the same time there is a danger that they may trespass into the powers given to the legislature and the executive.


One many say that if there is any limitation on judicial review other than constitutional and procedural19 that is a product of judicial self-restraint. As justice Dwivedi empathically observed, “Structural socio-political value choices involve a complex and complicated political process. This court is hardly fitted for performing that function. In the absence of any explicit Constitutional norms and for want of complete evidence, the court’s structural value choices will be largely subjective. Our personal predilections will unavoidably enter into the scale and give colour to our judgment. Subjectivism is calculated to undermine legal certainty, an essential element of rule of law.”20


The above observations also reveal another assumption to support an attitude of self-restraint, viz., the element subjectiveness in judicial decision on issues having socio-political significance. When one looks at the decisions of the Supreme Court on certain questions of fundamental issues of constitutional law one can see that there is a sharp division among the judges of the apex court on such basic questions of power of the Parliament to amend the Constitution, federal relations, powers of the President etc. This aptly demonstrates the observation of the judge. This would mean that though there has been expansion of powers of judicial review one cannot also say that this cannot be overturned.


Judicial self-restrain in relation to legislative power manifests itself in the form the there is a presumption of constitutionality when the validity of the statute is challenged. In the words of Fazl Ali, “…the presumption is always in favour of the constitutionality of an enactment, and the burden is upon him who attacks it to show that there has been a clear transgression of the constitutional principles”21


In applying the presumption of constitutionality the Courts sometimes apply an interpretational device called ‘reading down’. The essence of the device is that “if certain provisions of law construed in one way would make them consistent with the constitution, and another interpretation would render them unconstitutional, the court would lean in favour of the former construction.”22 But all this depends on the outlook and values of the judge.23


When it come judicial review of administrative action though the presumption of validity is not so strong in the case of administrative action as in the case of statutes. Still, when the legislature expressly leaves a matter to the discretion of an administrative authority the courts have adopted an attitude of restraint. They have said we cannot the question the legality of the exercise of discretionary power unless and until it is an abuse of discretionary power (which includes mala fide exercise of power, exercising the power for an improper motive, decision based on irrelevant considerations or in disregard of relevant consideration, and in some cases unreasonable exercise of power) and non-exercise of discretion ( which come when power is exercised without proper delegation and when it is acted under dictation).


The relevant considerations which should make the judicial choice in favour of activism or restraint are the policy and scheme of the statute, the object of conferring discretionary powers, the nature and scope of the discretion, and finally, the nature of the right and interests affected by the decision. Any impulsive move to activism without a serious consideration of these factors may only be viewed as undesirable. Judicial activism, being an exception, not the general rule, in relation to the control of discretionary power, needs strong reasons to justify it. In the absence of such strong support of reasons the interventionist strategy may provoke the other branches of Government may retaliate and impose further limitations on the scope of judicial review.




Accountability is an essential part of the rule of law. It is essential for another reason, as in the earlier editions of Dicey,24 of course modified in later editions, referring to John Wilkes’s case,25 that “conferment of any discretion tends to arbitrariness and therefore there is something inconsistent with the rule of law.” But then, as time passed, it was realized that conferment of some discretion for the purpose of application to the facts of a given case is something you cannot do away with. The area of discretion should be the minimum possible, and set norms, standards or guidelines should regulate it, so that it does not tend to become arbitrary. Therefore, the rule of non-arbitrariness is something to be tested by the judiciary whenever the occasion arises.26


The growth of judicial review is the inevitable response of the judiciary to ensure proper check on the exercise of public power. Growing awareness of the rights in the people; the trend of judicial scrutiny of every significant governmental action and the readiness even of the executive to seek judicial determination of debatable or controversial issues, at times, may be, to avoid its accountability for the decision, have all resulted in the increasing significance of the role of the judiciary. There is a general perception that the judiciary in this country has been active in expansion of the field of judicial review into non-traditional areas, which earlier were considered beyond judicial purview.


The Judges have a duty to perform, which is even more onerous to keep the judicial ship afloat on even keel. It must avoid making any ad hoc decision without the foundation of a juristic principle, particularly, when the decision appears to break new grounds. The judgments must be logical, precise, clear, and sober, rendered with restraint in speech avoiding saying more than that, which is necessary in the case.27


It must always be remembered that a step taken in a new direction is fraught with the danger of being a likely step in a wrong direction. In order to be a path-breaking trend it must be a sure step in the right direction. Any step satisfying these requirements and setting a new trend to achieve justice can alone be a New Dimension of Justice and a true contribution to the growth and development of law meant to achieve the ideal of justice.

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