This Article is written by Christie Merin Manoj (a final year student of BBA LL.B (Hons.) from Lovely Professional University, Punjab)
KEYWORDS– principles of natural justice, the doctrine of empty formality, the doctrine of futile exercise, useless formality theory
Natural justice is also known as common-sense justice does not have a proper definition and is a very unclear concept. Yet the principles of natural justice have been well accepted and enforced everywhere. It is considered a tool of fair play and plays a vital role in delivering justice to the parties concerned. However, there are exceptional circumstances where the Courts need not apply the rules of natural justice. The doctrine of empty formality is one of them. The doctrine states that Courts can ignore the principles of natural justice if it feels that it is just a mere formality and the outcome of the case would have been the same even if the principles were rightly observed. This article aims to deal with the doctrine of empty formality and its application. The article has also pointed out the flaws of this doctrine with respect to natural justice.
The doctrine of empty formality is a concept within the field of administrative law and is known in multiple ways; useless formality theory, the doctrine of futile exercise, empty formality theory, etc. The theory states that principles of natural justice are not required to be complied with if their compliance ultimately results in an empty formality. It means that in a given case, even if the principles of natural justice were observed, the outcome wouldn’t change. Thereby, the application of rules of natural justice makes it a mere “useless formality”. There are several instances where the Court has discarded the principles of natural justice after satisfying that the outcome of the case could not have been different even if the principles of natural justice had been fully applied.
In the case of M.C Mehta v. Union of India [(1999) 6 SCC 237], it was observed by the Supreme Court that judges have the power to dismiss a writ by invoking the doctrine of empty formality wherein the facts are admitted and indisputable. To what extend the principles of natural justice need to be complied with entirely depends upon the facts of the case. Similarly, to decide whether a case comes under the exemption of useless theory, one should question its facts. In the case of Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation v. S.G. Kotturappa [AIR 2005 SC 1933], the Court opined that principles of natural justice cannot be put into a straitjacket formula and therefore, are flexible. The Court further added that where a person had committed repeated acts of misconduct and had also accepted minor punishment, he is not entitled to benefit of principles of natural justice as it would be a mere formality. In Viveka NandSethi v. Chairman, J & K Bank Ltd [(2005) 5 SCC 337], an enquiry would be an empty formality where the facts are already admitted. It further held that the application of natural justice cannot be done in a vacuum. It can be applied only with reference to the facts.
In the case of Aligarh Muslim University v. Mansoor Ali Khan [(2000) 7 SCC 529], according to university rule, automatic termination of the service happens on the unauthorised absence of an employee for a certain period of time. Mansoor remained absent for more than five years, and therefore the post was deemed to have been vacated. Mansoor challenged the order as being violative of natural justice as no opportunity of hearing was afforded before taking the action. The court however refused to set aside the order on the grounds that no prejudice was caused to Mansoor. According to the court, the only conclusion which could be drawn was that had Mansoor been given notice, it would not have made any difference.
All these cases are examples of Courts that exercised the doctrine of empty formality. However, not all cases can be set aside without observing the rules of natural justice. In the case of Board of High School & Intermediate Education, U.P. v. Chitra Srivastava [(1970) 1 SCC 121], the Board cancelled the petitioner’s examination on the ground that she failed to meet the required attendance criteria for lectures. However, no notice was given to her before taking the action. On behalf of the Board, it was contended that the facts were not in dispute and no useful purpose would have been served by giving such notice. The Supreme Court however did not uphold their contention stating that the petitioner could have been given an opportunity to prove whether her absence was due to unavoidable circumstances or not.
APPLICATION OF THE DOCTRINE
The principle of natural justice is a concept that has gained significance and is an approved rule of fair play in the case of Canara Bank v. Debasis Das, [(2003) 4 SCC 557]. The absolute and the most basic principle of law is that no action be taken without proper hearing of the parties. Therefore, the non-observance of this principle itself is a miscarriage of justice. In the case of S.L. Kapoor v. Jagmohan [(1980) 4 SCC 379], it was held that the non-compliance of natural justice is itself prejudice to the system and proof of prejudice independently of proof of denial of natural justice need not be shown. William Wade in his book of administrative law observed that the doctrine of hearing is so vital that the procedure (notice and hearing) and the merits (decision) should be kept strictly apart, otherwise the latter may be prejudiced unfairly. The principle of quialiquidstatuerit parte inauditaaltera, aequum licet dixerit, baud aequumfecerit meaning “justice should not only be done but should manifestly be seen to be done” was rightly held in Boswell’s case [(1605) 6 Co. Rep. 48-b, 52-a]. Therefore, the principles of natural justice have been accepted and followed by the judges to make sure that justice is seen to be done. However, some of the Supreme Court judgements convey that the principles of natural justice are not be followed rigidly, and therefore, sometimes non-observance of the same is permissible.
On the basis of various Supreme Court observations, the author has drawn certain situations where the doctrine of empty formality can be applied:
- Where no prejudice is caused
In the case of Rachhpal Singh v. State of Punjab [(2002) 6 SCC 462], the appellant approached the Supreme Court on the ground that no court notice of the revision petition was issued to him. The court considering the facts and circumstances came to a conclusion that no prejudice was caused to the appellant. Therefore, the rejection of the petition without a hearing was valid.
- Where only one conclusion is possible
The cases of Aligarh Muslim University v. Mansoor Ali Khanand S.L. Kapoor v. Jagmohan are examples where the Court held that if no other conclusion was possible, it is not necessary to quash an order which was passed in violation of natural justice.
- Where it is an empty formality
It was held that the Court of law need not observe natural justice as a useless formality or a futile exercise as it is well accepted that the principles of natural justice are flexible. This was held in the case of Ashok Kumar Sonkar v. Union of India [(2007) 4 SCC 54].
- Where the facts and circumstances favour such application
In the case of Ravi S. Naik v. Union of India [1994 Supp (2) SCC 641] it was held that whether the requirements of natural justice should be complied with or not has to be considered in the context of the facts and circumstances of a particular case. Also in the case of Board of High School & Intermediate Education, U.P. v. Chitra Srivastava as discussed earlier, the doctrine of empty formality theory was not applied as the facts and circumstances were not in favour. Therefore, to understand whether it is right to observe the rules of natural justice lies in the facts and circumstances of each case.
- Where its observance would not make any difference to the verdict
InPunjab National Bank v. Manjeet Singh [(2006) 8 SCC 647]it was held that if the decision does not make any difference even it was passed without observing the principles of natural justice, it does not render it invalid or violative of natural justice.
IS THE DOCTRINE SAFE?
Even though the principles of natural justice are not codified, the same is well accepted and enforced in all the Courts of law. These laws are merely procedural in nature but they aim to ensure the delivery of justice to the aggrieved parties. However, the doctrine of empty formality suggests something quite opposite to the rules of natural justice. The doctrine facilities the Courts to skip these rules if they feel there is no prejudice caused to the party. The question is, is exercising this doctrine safe? On one hand, invoking the doctrine helps the courts skip a lot of unwanted and time-consuming procedures, thereby saving a lot of time. Skipping small procedures so as to avoid mere formality can eventually save the Court’s valuable time thereby resulting in speedy justice. On the other hand, the doctrine is prone to abuse as there are huge possibilities for the judges to impose their self-assumptions.
Therefore, it is in the author’s opinion that exercising the doctrine is safe, but should be done with utmost care and concern. The misuse of this doctrine would eventually lead to a train of events causing prejudice. Courts should not be allowed to use this doctrine wherever possible, but, restrict its usage to only apply it when required. The Courts should never prejudge an issue, and therefore, the exercising of doctrine should not cause a miscarriage of justice.
In conclusion, it can be said that principles of natural justice cannot be applied like a straitjacket formula and are flexible. It varies in accordance with the facts and circumstances of each case. The doctrine of empty formality has not yet gained an affirmative status in the field of administrative law. This is because of the highly probable chances of abuse by the authorities. Principles of natural justice is a concept of fairness, but if no prejudice is caused, the courts have the freedom to skip unwanted procedures as it deems fit. However, irreparable damage could happen if the same is done without proper care, as it sets a bad precedent for the rest of the Courts.