In the backdrop of certain recent decisions of the Supreme Court on the issue, this article seeks to address whether the exercise of writ jurisdiction by the High Court should be readily interfered with in cases where there exists an alternative statutory remedy.
The Supreme Court in State of Maharashtra & Ors v. GreatShip (India) Ltd held that the High Court had seriously erred in entertaining the writ petition against the assessment order and ought to have relegated the writ petitioner-assessee to avail the statutory remedy of appeal and thereafter to avail other remedies provided under the statute. The Court has also held that the consistent view taken by it was that when there is an alternative remedy available, judicial prudence demands that the High Court refrains from exercising its jurisdiction under constitutional provisions.
In this matter, the Bombay High Court in GreatShip (India) Ltd v. State of Maharashtra & Ors, which was subject matter of the challenge before the Supreme Court, had come to a conclusion that the orders of assessment could not have been passed on March 20, 2020 or before March 31, 2020, since such orders were passed beyond the limitation period of March 31. The Bombay High Court had held that the writ petition was maintainable as the issue involved a question of jurisdiction or lack of jurisdiction, and the relief under Article 226 could not be denied only on the ground of existence of an alternative remedy.
The principle which emanates from such decision is that judicial prudence demands that the High Court should not exercise its discretionary jurisdiction under Article 226 when there exists an alternative statutory remedy.
In contrast, the Supreme Court in its decision in Radha Krishan Industries v. State of HP held that the exceptions to the rule of alternative remedy arise where : (a) the writ petition has been filed for the enforcement of a fundamental right protected by Part III of the Constitution; (b) there has been a violation of the principles of natural justice; (c) the order or proceedings are wholly without jurisdiction; or (d) the vires of a legislation is challenged.
The Court also held that in cases where there are disputed questions of fact, the High Court may decline jurisdiction in a writ petition. However, if the High Court is objectively of the view that the nature of the controversy requires the exercise of its writ jurisdiction, such a view would not readily be interfered with.
Therefore, there does appear to be a divergence between the principles laid down by the Supreme Court in GreatShip India Ltd and those laid down in Radha Krishan Industries. Further, the decision in GreatShip India Ltd does not make a reference to the earlier decision of the Court in Radha Krishan Industries.
This article seeks to analyse both these seemingly divergent views through the prism of the following factors:
(a) Exercise of writ Jurisdiction by the High Courts under the Indian Constitution and role of the Supreme Court vis-à-vis the High Courts; and
(b) Broad overview of principles laid down by the Supreme Court qua the exercise of writ jurisdiction by High Courts.
On the role of the High Court vis-à-vis the Supreme Court under the Indian Constitution, the Supreme Court in Tirupati Balaji Developers (P) Ltd v. State of Bihar, has held that under the constitutional scheme as framed for the judiciary, the Supreme Court and the High Courts are both courts of record. The High Court is not a court “subordinate” to the Supreme Court. In a way, the canvas of judicial powers vesting in the High Court is wider, inasmuch as it has jurisdiction to issue all prerogative writs conferred by Article 226 of the Constitution for the enforcement of any of the rights under Part III of the Constitution and for any other purpose. The original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to issue prerogative writs remains confined to the enforcement of fundamental rights and to deal with some such matters, such as Presidential elections or inter-state disputes which the Constitution does not envisage being heard and determined by High Courts.
While the High Court exercises power of superintendence under Article 227 of the Constitution over all subordinate courts and tribunals, the Supreme Court has not been conferred with any power of superintendence. If the Supreme Court and the High Courts both were to be thought of as brothers in the administration of justice, the High Court has larger jurisdiction but the Supreme Court still remains the elder brother.
However, under Article 141 of the Constitution, the law declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all courts, including High Courts. Under Article 144 of the Constitution, all authorities, civil and judicial, in the territory of India — and that would include High Courts as well — shall act in aid of the Supreme Court. Under Article 136 of the Constitution, a plenary jurisdiction exercisable on assuming appellate jurisdiction subject to grant of special leave against any kind of judgment or order made by any court or tribunal and in any cause or matter has been vested in the Supreme Court. Article 136 does not confer a right of appeal on a party, but vests a vast discretion in the Supreme Court meant to be exercised by the considerations of justice, call of duty and eradicating injustice.
Separately, on the broad principles as regards the exercise of writ jurisdiction by the courts, the Supreme Court in its recent decision in Magadh Sugar & Energy Ltd v. State of Bihar & Ors summarized the principles of law crystallized in earlier decisions, as under:
“(i) The power under Article 226 of the Constitution to issue writs can be exercised not only for the enforcement of fundamental rights, but for any other purpose as well;
(ii) The High Court has the discretion not to entertain a writ petition. One of the restrictions placed on the power of the High Court is where an effective alternate remedy is available to the aggrieved person;
(iii) Exceptions to the rule of alternate remedy arise where (a) the writ petition has been filed for the enforcement of a fundamental right protected by Part III of the Constitution; (b) there has been a violation of the principles of natural justice; (c) the order or proceedings are wholly without jurisdiction; or (d) the vires of a legislation is challenged;
(iv) An alternate remedy by itself does not divest the High Court of its powers under Article 226 of the Constitution in an appropriate case though ordinarily, a writ petition should not be entertained when an efficacious alternate remedy is provided by law;
(v) When a right is created by a statute, which itself prescribes the remedy or procedure for enforcing the right or liability, resort must be had to that particular statutory remedy before invoking the discretionary remedy under Article 226 of the Constitution. This rule of exhaustion of statutory remedies is a rule of policy, convenience and discretion; and
(vi) In cases where there are disputed questions of fact, the High Court may decide to decline jurisdiction in a writ petition. However, if the High Court is objectively of the view that the nature of the controversy requires the exercise of its writ jurisdiction, such a view would not readily be interfered with.”
On an analysis of the above, the principle enunciated in Radha Krishan Industries, that even in cases where there exists an alternative statutory remedy, if the High Court is of the view that the nature of controversy objectively requires it to exercise its jurisdiction, the exercise of jurisdiction by the High Court should not be interfered with, appears to be the correct view. Insofar as the exercise of writ jurisdiction by the High Court is on grounds which fall within the exceptions to the rule of alternative remedy, such decision should not readily be interfered with only on the sole basis of existence of a statutory alternate remedy. Such principle, will also be in consonance with the general principles as regards exercise of writ jurisdiction by the courts and the role of the High Court vis-à-vis the Supreme Court as envisaged under the Indian Constitution.
Karthik Sundaram is an Advocate practicing at the Madras High Court.