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Judicial Discipline: Whether A Similar Strength Bench Should Follow The Decision Of Earlier Similar Strength Bench?

Judicial Discipline is a very crucial to Justice System of India. It ensures order, consistency, and public trust in courts. It involves hierarchy and precedent rule of stare decisis. Lower courts must follow the rulings and decisions of higher courts. Articles 141 of Indian Constitution provides that, pronouncements of Supreme Court are binding on all courts within the boundary of India. Judges, generally avoid contradicting established legal principles set by prior judgements. This promotes stability and predictability in law. This also maintains smooth functioning and avoids conflicting pronouncements.

It is a general principle of law that, decisions of larger benches are binding on smaller benches in a same high court and also in Supreme Court. As per the Judicial Discipline principle, lower courts cannot contradict with the decisions of higher courts. The benches comprising of lesser quorum cannot go against the decisions pronounced by the larger quorum benches. In case of any doubt, the smaller quorum bench should refer the matter to concerned chief justice and may request to refer the matter to a larger bench[1]. But an issue here arises is that, what about collateral benches or benches with similar strength, should they follow ruling of earlier co-equal strength bench or they are allowed to take a contrary view on a matter?

Judicial Discipline:
It was observed in the decision of, Lala Shri Bhagwan & Anr. v. Shri Ram Chand and Anr., that "our system of administration of justice aims at certainty in the law and that can be achieved only if, Judges do not ignore decisions by Courts of coordinate authority or of superior authority[2]."

In, Tribhuvan Das Purshottam das Thakur vs Ratilal Motilal Patel[3], Hon'ble Supreme Court then set aside the order of single judge, who did not follow the decision of high court. Apex court reiterated the observation of Gajendragadkar, C. J in Lala Shri Bhagwan case, "It is hardly necessary to emphasize that consideration of judicial propriety and decorum require that if a learned single Judge hearing a matter is inclined to take the view that the earlier decisions of the High Court, whether of a Division Bench or of a single Judge, need, to be re-considered, he should not embark upon that enquiry sitting as a single Judge, but should refer the matter 'to a Division Bench. or, in a proper case, place the relevant papers before the Chief Justice to enable him to -constitute a larger Bench to examine the question. That is the proper and traditional way to deal with such matters and it is founded on healthy principles of judicial decorum and propriety."

The Supreme Court case of State of Punjab and Another v. Devans Modern Breweries emphasizes the concept of judicial discipline. The court ruled that a bench of equal standing within the same court should follow the legal decisions made by a previous bench of equal standing. If the later bench disagrees with the legal principles established in the earlier decision, the only course of action is to refer the matter to a larger bench for consideration. This principle was reaffirmed in the case of Pradip Chandra Parija v. Pramod Chandra Patnaik[4]. The court reiterated that a bench cannot reach a conclusion that contradicts or is inconsistent with the legal principles laid down by a previous bench of equal standing[5].

Where a coordinate bench has different arguments or issue law, it will be appropriate to refer the matter to a larger bench by requesting the concerned Chief Justice, otherwise there will be two conflicting opinions, creating confusion[6]. It is not proper to sacrifice certainty of law.

In the judgement of Official Liquidator vs Dayanand & Ors, court acknowledged that there have been troubling instances where different benches within High Courts have failed to follow the rulings of both coordinate benches (benches of equal standing) and even larger benches. In some concerning situations, High Courts have even disregarded the legal principles established by the Supreme Court itself, without any justifiable explanation. Similarly, there have been cases where smaller benches within the Supreme Court itself have either ignored or sidestepped the core legal reasoning laid down in judgments by larger benches. These instances exemplify a lack of adherence to the principle of judicial discipline, which is absolutely essential for the stability and proper functioning of the legal system.[7].

Quality of certainty is very important and necessary in law. The judges should not confuse people with their contradictory decision. Such positions by similar strength benches would lead to uncertainty within the general public and legal community which is fatal to social justice. if a Division Bench disagrees with a previous decision from another Division Bench of the same High Court, but cannot differentiate the current case from the prior one, and simply decides to disregard the earlier ruling because they believe it is incorrect, the outcome would be utter confusion.[8].

Supreme Court recently in a 2024 case of Mary Pushpam v. Telvi Curusumary[9] and Others cleared the confusion with respect to the issue. Court reiterated on Judicial discipline; "it envisages that a coordinate Bench must follow the decision of an earlier coordinate Bench. If a coordinate Bench does not agree with the principles of law enunciated by another Bench, the matter may be referred only to a larger Bench[10]. The bench may request the concerned chief justice to form a larger bench to hear the matter."

The court in above case also discussed the importance of Judicial Discipline and Consistency in Decision-Making. The Indian legal system emphasizes "Judicial Discipline and Propriety" and the concept of "precedents." These principles work together to ensure fair and predictable outcomes in court cases.

Hence, the Mary Pushpam case with the help of earlier decisions of supreme court discussed on the concerned of issue of this paper. However, even after such decisions, many benches do not follow the above rule and tend to deviate from the views of earlier larger or co-equal strength benches and in some cases even decisions of larger benches and courts are not followed. Though later generally on appeal against such cases, they are set aside by the higher courts.

In Supreme Court and respective High Courts, the co-equal strength benches should follow the decisions of earlier co-equal strength benches and in case of any contradiction or disagreement, a request to form a larger bench can be made to concerned Chief Justice. But a new ruling with a contradictory view should not be pronounced by such benches, otherwise it will only create confusion for the citizens and legal community.

By following established judicial practices and prior rulings on similar cases, consistency in legal decisions will be promoted. This allows individuals to understand the potential consequences of their actions more clearly. The Supreme Court have consistently emphasized the importance of judicial discipline. This means that lower courts, including benches within the same High Court with equal authority, should generally respect and follow the legal principles established in previous rulings on similar cases.

However, the principle is not absolute. A lower court bench is not obligated to blindly follow a previous ruling if they have a strong legal justification for a different interpretation. In such cases, the lower court can choose to refer the matter to a larger bench for a more comprehensive review. This ensures the certainty in the justice system for the masses by avoiding confusing.

Judicial Discipline ensures consistency and predictability in legal pronouncements. It is paramount for a smooth functioning justice system. In India the issue of decision binding on coordinate benches has been addressed in many decisions. While the recent Mary Pushpam case reiterates the principle of following precedent, a balance needs to be struck between stability and necessary evolution of the law. A Structured Approach for Diverging Views is required. While promoting stability, the system should allow for measured divergence from precedent. A structured approach could also be implemented.

If a co-equal bench disagrees with the precedent and has its own reasons for such departure, matter should be referred to a larger bench for a more comprehensive review. This ensures a considered evolution of the law while minimizing confusion.

  • Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community & Anr. vs. State of Maharashtra & Anr. (2005) 2 SCC 673.
  • Shri Bhagwan and Anr vs Ram Chand and Anr, 1965 AIR 1767.
  • Tribhuvandas Purshottamdas Thakur vs Ratilal Motilal Patel, 1968 AIR 372.
  • Pradip Chandra Parija v. Pramod Chandra Patnaik 2001 AIR SCW 5016.
  • State of Punjab and Another v. Devans Modern Brweries, 2002 SCC Online SC 1300.
  • Vijay Laxmi Sadhi (Dr.) v. Jagdish, 2001 (2) SCC 247.
  • Official Liquidator vs Dayanand & Ors, 2008 (10) SCC.
  • Mahadeolal Kanodia vs. Administrator General of W.B. [1960 (3) SCR 578].
  • Mary Pushpam v. Telvi Curusumary and Others 2024 SCC ONLINE SC 9.
  • State of Punjab & Anr. v. Devans Moders Breweries Ltd. & Anr. (2000) 6 SCC 359.

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