T.S.V. Diwakar, Advocate & Arbitrator
It is well known that the government is the largest litigant in the courts. It is less known that it starves the judiciary of funds. It is even less known that it chokes the courts with unnecessary suits. The last one frequently invites drubbing from the Supreme Court. Two judgments delivered last week analyse the psychology of bureaucrats in the legal departments. They follow the following guidelines, according to the apex court:
All claims against the government/statutory authorities should be viewed as illegal and be resisted and fought up to the highest court of the land.
If taking a decision on an issue could be avoided, it is prudent not to decide the issue and let the aggrieved party approach the court and secure a decision.Though these seem like Murphy’s law or Catch-22, we must accept them as they come from the highest court of the land. The two judgments amply prove how the government takes “frivolous and unjust” causes up to the apex court, no matter whether it wins or loses.In the first case, the dispute was over the loss of some packages worth Rs 9,000 imported by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) in 2000. They were kept by the Customs department in the custody of Mysore Sales International Ltd (MSIL). A fire destroyed the goods. Who will pay the petty amount? The court noted that the four parties involved were government entities.
“We are surprised,” the order said, “that such cases are being litigated up to this court. MSIL is a Karnataka government company. HAL is a central government undertaking. The insurer is also a central government-controlled company. The Customs is a department of the central government. The dispute is only in regard to the extent of sharing the burden. The parties could have easily settled the dispute by mutual negotiations. The appeals are, therefore, dismissed. It is open to the parties to sort out the matter by mutual negotiations.”
The government invited worse comments in the Urban Improvement Trust vs Mohan Lal case. The appeal of the government trust was over the allotment of a 450 sq ft plot in Bikaner in 1992. Later, the trust acquired the plot for laying a road without giving an alternative plot to Mohan Lal. He moved the consumer forum and won. The trust did not stop there and took the case up to the Supreme Court.
While dismissing the appeal of the trust, the court remarked, “It is a matter of concern that such frivolous and unjust litigation by governments and statutory authorities are on the increase. Statutory authorities exist to discharge statutory functions in public interest. They should be responsible litigants. They cannot raise frivolous and unjust objections, nor act in a callous and high-handed manner … They are expected to show remorse when their officers act negligently or in an overbearing manner… This court has repeatedly expressed the view that the governments and statutory authorities should be model or ideal litigants and should not put forth false, frivolous, vexatious, technical contentions to obstruct the path of justice.”
As early as in 1973, in the Dilbagh Rai vs Union of India case , the court had diagnosed the development of this bureaucratic tendency. It said, “It must be remembered that the state is no ordinary party trying to win a case against one of its own citizens by hook or crook; for the state’s interest is to meet honest claims, vindicate a substantial defence and never to score a technical point or overreach a weaker party to avoid a just liability or secure an unfair advantage. The state is a virtuous litigant and looks with unconcern on immoral forensic successes so that if on the merits, the case is weak, the government shows a willingness to settle the dispute regardless of prestige and other lesser motives.”
In the Madras Port Trust vs Hymanshu International (1979) case, the court emphasised that it was high time that governments and public authorities adopted the practice of not relying upon technical pleas for defeating the legitimate claims of citizens. In the Bhag Singh vs Union Territory of Chandigarh (1985) case, the Supreme Court asserted the same sentiments. The only exemption it granted was in the case of tax when the state has to recover revenue for the sake of the public.
Once again in the two judgments of recently, the court pointed out that vexatious and unnecessary litigation has been clogging the wheels of justice. The government alone cannot do it; the officers of the legal department should shed the fear of being accused of taking wrong decisions and avoid building firewalls to protect themselves.