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Doctrine Of Reasonable Classification: Sometimes Absolute Equality Itself Can Lead To Inequality

Article 14 of the Indian constitution grants every person equality before law and equal protection of laws. However, article 14 is not absolute, there can be certain exceptions for the betterment of citizens and in favour of the public interest. In the following article, the writer attempts to make the audience understand as to why reasonable classification is important with respect to article 14.

There are various aspects that you can read as to the origin of the terms equal protection of law and equality before law and also the meaning of rule of law which relates to the topic of the article. Furthermore, the writer has explained the meaning of doctrine of reasonable classification citing various case laws to make the audience understand the doctrine and has concluded by expressing his opinions about the same.

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution states that:
The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.

This expression of equal protection of law and equality before the law are enshrined in the constitution. They guarantee the fundamental rights and aim to establish equality of status.
The term equality before law has its origin from America and is somewhat a negative concept aiming at the implication of an absence of some special privileges. This can be by the reason of place of birth, religion, caste, sex, etc. and by the ordinary law in favour of persons and all the equal subject of classes.

The term equal protection before law has its origin from Britain and is somewhat a positive concept aiming at equal treatment in identical situations. In other words, the President or the Prime Minister of the country should be dealt in the same manner in law as that of a common citizen.

Rule of Law
The concept of Rule of Law is an animation of natural law and remains as a historical ideal which makes a powerful appeal even today to be ruled by law, not by a powerful man. Rule of Law is to be understood neither as a rule nor as a law. It is generally understood as a doctrine of state political morality which concentrates on the rule of law in securing correct balance between rights and powers, between individuals, and between individuals and the State in any free and civil society.

This balance may be drawn by law based on freedom, justice, equality and accountability. Therefore, it infuses in law with moral qualities. Rule of proper law balances the needs of society and the individual.

In India, the concept of rule of law can be traced to the Upanishads.
It provides:
Law is the King of Kings. It is more powerful and rigid than the Kings. There is nothing Higher than the law. By its powers the weak shall prevail over the strong and the justice shall triumph.

Thus, in monarchy, the concept of law developed to control the exercise of arbitrary powers of the monarchs who claimed divine powers to rule.

The basic concept of the rule of law is not a well-defined legal concept. The courts generally would not invalidate any positive law on the ground that it violates the contents of rule of law. However, in ADM Jabalpur v. Shivakant Shukla[1], popularly known as Habeas Corpus case, an attempt was made to challenge the detention orders during the emergency on the ground that it violates the principles of the rule of law as the:
obligation to act in accordance with the rule of law� is a central feature of our constitutional system and is a basic feature of the constitution.

Though the contention did not succeed and some justices even went to suggest that during an emergency, the emergency provisions themselves constitute the rule of law, yet if the reasoning of all five opinions is closely read, it becomes clear that the contention was accepted, no matter it did not reflect in the final order passed by the court. Therefore, despite the unfortunate order to the effect that the doors of the court during an emergency are completely shut for the detenus, it is gratifying to note that the concept of rule of law can be used as a legal concept.

In the opinion of some Judges constituting the majority in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerela,[2] the rule of law was considered as an:
Aspect of the doctrine of basic structure of the constitution, which even the plenary power of parliament cannot reach to amend.

The modern concept of rule of law is fairly wide and, therefore, sets up an ideal for any government to achieve. This concept was developed by the International Commission of Jurists, known as Delhi Declaration, 1959, which was later confirmed at Lagos in 1961. According to this formulation, the rule of law implies that the functions of the government in a free society should be so exercised as to create conditions in which the dignity of man as an individual is upheld.

This dignity requires not only the recognition of certain civil or political rights but also creation of certain political, social, economic, educational and cultural conditions which are essential to the full development of his personality and the protection of his dignity.

Rule of law doctrine is a complicated and demanding criterion for evaluating the legitimacy of governance in any state. Nevertheless, it cannot be a ground to ignore it if the benefits of the constitutional democracy are to be secured for the present and future generations of the people.

Recent aggressive judicial activism can only be seen as a part of the efforts of the constitutional goals in India to establish a rule of law society which implies that no matter how high a person may be, the law is always above him. Court is also trying to identify the concept of rule of law with human rights of the people.

As stated in Ashutosh Gupta v. State of Rajasthan[3], the doctrine of equality before law is a necessary corollary of Rule of Law which pervades the Indian constitution.

Though the concept of rule of law has all the merits, the only negative side of the concept is that respect for law degenerates into legalism from which its very rigidity works injury to the nation.

Doctrine of reasonable classification
Though Article 14 mandates that State shall not discriminate between similarly situated persons, that does not mean that all persons should be subjected to similar treatment. Article 14 prescribes equality before law, but the fact remains that all the persons are not equal in nature, attainment or circumstances, and therefore, a mechanical equality before the law may result in injustice. Thus, the guarantee against the denial of equal protection of the law does not mean that identically the same rules of law should be made applicable to the persons in spite of differences in circumstances or conditions.

The principle of equality of law does not mean that the same law should apply to everyone but that a law should deal alike with all-in-one class, that there should be an equality of treatment under equal circumstances. It means that equals should not be treated unlike and the unlikes should not be treated alike. Likes should be treated alike.

To apply the principal of equality in a practical manner, the courts have evolved the principle that if the law in question is based on rational classification, it is not regarded as discriminatory.

A Legislature is entitled to make reasonable classification for purposes of legislation and treat all-in-one class on an equal footing. The Supreme Court has thus underlined this principle under Western U.P. Electric Power and Supply Corporation Limited V. State of Uttar Pradesh [4]that:
Article 14 of the constitution ensures equality among equals: its aim is to protect persons similarly placed against discriminatory treatment. It does not however operate against rational classification. A person setting up a grievance of denial of equal treatment by law must establish that between persons similarly circumstanced, some were treated to their prejudice and the differential treatment had no reasonable relation to the object sought to be achieved by the law.

When the validity of legislation is challenged on the ground of violation of Article 14, each case has to be examined independently in the context of Article 14, and not by applying any general rule. Article 14 declares equality of rights to all persons within the territory of India and enjoins equal protection to all persons in the enjoyment of their rights and liberties without discrimination or favouritism.

As stated in Subramanian Swamy v. CBI[5], it is pledge of protection of equal laws, that is, laws that operate alike on all persons under like circumstances.

Article 14 forbids class legislation; it does not forbid reasonable classification of persons, objects and transactions by the Legislature for the purpose of achieving specific ends. When there is no reasonable basis for classification, such classification may be declared discriminatory as stated in S. Seshachalam v. Bar Council of Tamil Nadu[6].

Classification to be reasonable should fulfill the following 2 tests:
  1. It should not be arbitrary, artificial or evasive. It should be based on an intelligible differentia, some real and substantial distinction, which distinguishes persons or things grouped together in the class from others left out of it.
  2. The differentia adopted as the basis of classification must have a rational or reasonable nexus with the object sought to be achieved by the statute in question.

Article 14 in its ambit and sweep involves two facets, viz, it permits reasonable classification which is founded on intelligible differentia and accommodates the practical needs of society and the differential must have a rational relation to the objects sought to be achieved. Further, it does not allow any kind of arbitrariness and ensures fairness and equality of treatment. It is the 'fon juris' of our constitution, the fountainhead of justice.

It is necessary that there should be some rational nexus between the basis of classification and the object intended to be achieved. Therefore, mere differentiation of inequality of treatment does not per se amount to discrimination within the inhibition of the equal protection clause.

The Supreme Court has explained in Re Special Courts Bill[7],:
The differentia which is the basis of classification and the Act are distinct things and what is necessary is that there must be nexus between them.

The Supreme Court has also observed in K. Thimmappa v. Chairman Central Board of Directors[8],:
When a law is challenged to be discriminatory essentially on the ground that it denies equal treatment or protection, the question for determination by the court is not whether it has resulted in inequality but whether there is some difference which bears a just and reasonable relation to the object of legislation. Mere differentiation does not per se amount to discrimination within the inhibition of the equal protection clause. To attract the operation of the clause it is necessary to show that the selection or differentiation is unreasonable or arbitrary, that it does not rest on any rational basis having regard to the object which the legislature has in view.

Again, the Supreme Court has observed in Union of India v. MV Valliappan[9]:
It is settled law that differentiation is not always discriminatory. If there is a rational nexus on the basis of which differentiation has been made with the object sought to be achieved by particular provision, then such differentiation is not discriminatory and does not violate the principles of Article 14 of the constitution.

The Supreme Court has however warned against over-emphasis on classification. The court has explained in the cases of L.I.C. of India v. Consumer Education and Research Centre[10] and EV Chinnaiah v. State of Andhra Pradesh[11] (latter was an instance of over classification) that:
The doctrine of classification is only a subsidiary rule evolved by the courts to give practical content to the doctrine of equality, over-emphasis on the doctrine of classification or anxious or sustained attempt to discover some basis for classification may gradually and imperceptibly erode the profound potency of the glorious content of equity enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution. The over-emphasis on classification would inevitably result in substitution of doctrine of classification for doctrine of equality� Lest, the classification would deny equality to the larger segments of society.

It is also stated in Basheer alias NP Basheer v. State of Kerela[12], that marginal over inclusiveness or under inclusiveness will not vitiate the classification.

As stated in Jagdish Pandey v. Chancellor, Bihar University[13], it is not necessary that for a classification to be valid, its basis must always appear on the face of the law. To find out the reasons and the justification for the classification, the court may refer to relevant material, eg. objects and reasons appended to a Bill, parliamentary debates, affidavits of the parties of the parties, matters of common knowledge, the background circumstances leading to the passage of the Act, etc

In Deepak Sibal v. Punjab University[14], the Supreme Court has observed that a classification need not be made with mathematical precision. But if there is little or no difference between the persons or things which have been grouped together and those left out of the group, then classification cannot be regarded as reasonable.

The Court has also observed that to consider reasonableness of classification, it is necessary to take into account the objective for such classification. If the objective be illogical, unfair and unjust, necessarily, the classification will have to be held as unreasonable.

Also, surrounding circumstances may be taken into consideration in support of the constitutionality of the law which may otherwise be hostile or discriminatory in nature. But the circumstances must be such as to justify the discriminatory treatment or the classification subserving the object sought to be achieved.

The effect of these various principles is to enable the courts to uphold legislation in most of the cases and give the benefit of doubt as to the purpose of classification to the legislature. On the whole, the courts show reluctance to void legislation on the ground of its incompatibility with Article 14.

This judicial self-limitation has been taken to such length that, at times, voices of protest have been raised from the bench itself against too much judicial anxiety 'to discover some basis for classification'. A warning has been sounded that such an approach would substitute the doctrine of classification for the doctrine of equality and deprive it of much of its content.

The Supreme Court in Mohd. Shujat Ali v. Union of India[15] has stated:
Over emphasis on the doctrine of classification or an anxious and sustained attempt to discover some basis for classification may gradually and imperceptibly deprive the guarantee of equality for its spacious content. But the fact remains that many a time the Supreme Court itself has ignored this warning and upheld legislation, by finding some policy within the law.

Article 14 would be treated as violated only when equal protection is denied even when the two persons belong to the same class or category. Therefore, the person challenging the act of State as violative of Article 14 has to show that there is no reasonable basis for the differentiation between the two classes created by the State.

The benefit of 'equality before law' and 'equal protection of law' accrues to every person in India whether a citizen or not. As the Supreme Court has observed on this point in the case of Faridabad CT Scan Centre v. DG Health Services[16], We are a country governed by rule of law. Our constitution confers certain rights on every human being and certain other rights on citizens. Every person is entitled to equality before the law and equal protection of the laws.

The Supreme Court of India has never been hesitant in applying the theory of reasonable classification while determining the constitutional validity of any legislation impugned under Article 14 of the Constitution. Moreover, in order to implement some welfare schemes and for the development of particular classes of people, the State may sometimes be under an urge to come up with laws that deal differently with different classes of people.

Doctrine of reasonable classification is thus important in this respect. But, at the same time, the courts and the government must ensure that such classification is reasonable and free from arbitrariness.

Case Laws
The question of reasonableness of classification with respect to Article 14 has arisen before the courts in a large number of cases. Some of the cases are as follows:
  1. Subramanian Swamy v. Raju[17]:
    Inclusion of all under the age of 18 into a class called 'juveniles' under Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 was held valid as it provides a separate scheme of investigation, trial and punishment for offences committed by them. Differences inter se and within the under-18 category may exist, but so long as the board features of the categorization made are reasonably connected with the object targeted, Article 14 does not forbid such a course of action.
  2. Yogendra Kumar Jaiswal v. State of Bihar[18]:
    Particular offences were made triable under Special Courts set up specifically under the Orissa Act, 2006. The fact that in other states there is no such special court, does not make the act ultra vires Article 14.
  3. Quareshi v. State of Bihar[19]:
    A state law passed with a view to preserve and improve livestock permitted the killing of buffaloes, sheep and goats, but totally banned the killing of cows, bulls and calves. Cows and their calves, bulls and bullocks are important for the agricultural economy of the country, female buffaloes are milch cattle, bullocks are more useful as drought animals than male buffaloes, sheep and goat have not much utility as draught or milch animals. The different categories of animals being thus, susceptible of classification into separate groups on the basis of their usefulness to society, the butchers killing each category may also be placed in distinct classes according to the effect their occupations produce on the society, and, accordingly, the Act was held valid.
  4. Madhu Limaye v Supdt, Tihar Jail, Delhi[20]:
    Difference between Indian and European prisoners in the matter of treatment and diet violates Article 14.
  5. RL Arora v State of Uttar Pradesh[21]:
    Under the Land Acquisition Act, the government can acquire land for a government company or a public company but for not a private company or an individual. This is a valid classification. The intention of the legislature clearly is that private companies should not have the advantage of acquiring land in as much as the profit of their venture goes to a few hands.
  6. Manchegowda v State of Karnataka[22]:
    Special provisions can be made by a legislature to protect and preserve the economic interests of persons belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and to prevent their exploitation.
  7. Chairman & MD BPL ltd. v SP Gururaja[23]:
    When a statute provides for consultation but procedure for holding such consultation, the competent authority can evolve its own procedure and such provision cannot be held as arbitrary.
  8. Udai Ram v Union of India[24]:
    Whenever an act is amended, there is bound to be some difference in treatment between transactions completed before the amendment and those which are to take place in the future, but this is not discriminatory under Article 14.
  9. Indian Airlines Limited v Prabha D Kanan[25]:
    Mere absence of provision for representation or appeal would not render discretionary power arbitrary or discriminatory when such power was exercised by the highest authority and for specified reason.

Personal Opinion
Personally, if you asked me if the doctrine of reasonable classification was constitutional or unconstitutional, my answer would be that the doctrine is constitutional and completely justifiable. However, a question arises between individuals on whether this doctrine violates the Article 14 of the constitution or not. The answer to this question is simply that the doctrine would violate article 14 of the constitution only if the classification was unreasonable.

For example, the Prime Minister of India is a citizen of India, just like us, yet the Prime Minister gets a very strong security for which he doesn't even have to pay and we being common men and women don't. Does that mean that the Prime Minister himself is violating the Right to Equality? Of course not. The Prime Minister has a higher chance of threat to his/her life; hence it is only reasonable that he/she gets more security than any other citizen of India.

Right to equality doesn't mean that the same law should apply to everyone, but that a law should deal alike with all in one class and that there should be an equality of treatment under equal circumstances. The varying needs of different classes or sections of people require different and separate treatment. The legislature is required to deal with diverse problems arising out of an infinite variety of human relations.

It must, therefore, necessarily have the power of making laws to attain particular objects and for that purpose of distinguishing, selecting and classifying persons and things upon which its laws are to operate. Hence, different treatment does not per se amount to violation of Article 14 of the constitution, but it violates the Article 14 only when there is no reasonable basis and any prudent man can classify on what is reasonable and what is not reasonable.

Another point which I would like to raise here is that the constitution also follows the important principles of justice, equity and good conscience which results in not equal, but fair and much needed treatment to all the citizens of India. These terms 'justice, equity and good conscience' in their literal sense means 'good faith, fairness and public policy.

In India, the doctrine of justice, equity and good conscience dates back to the late 18th century when it was first introduced in the presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras and eventually to the other territories of India also. Since ancient times we have seen that law cannot be found in every matter and hence, the courts have to give their judgements on the basis of justice, equity and good conscience in order to pass a judgement that is fair and not unjust. Hence, we should not always look the principle of equality, but sometimes we also need to look at the principles of equity.

One example that I can think of which relates to the doctrine of reasonable classification is the Advocates Protection Bill which was passed recently this year on 2nd July by the Bar Council of India. This bill was passed keeping in mind the challenges and difficulties faced by the lawyers and their families. The main objective of this bill was the protection of advocates and the removal of impediments to their performance of their duties.

The bill mentions a number of factors that hinder the execution of responsibilities. A key factor is the spike in assaults, kidnappings, intimidation, threats, murders, etc. against lawyers. When the security of attorneys is jeopardised as a result of their work, the government must provide sufficient protection. Such a measure is required to safeguard advocates. It further stipulates that advocates must be provided with social security and bare necessities of life.

The definition of Advocate under Section 2 of the bill will be the same as in the Advocates Act of 1961. The term acts of violence is defined in the same section. All acts done against advocates with the purpose of bias or disrupt the process of impartial, fair and brave litigation fall under this category. These acts might include threats, coercion, harassment, assault, malicious prosecution, criminal force, hurt, harm, injury, and so on, all of which could have an impact on advocates' living and working conditions.

This also includes loss to property or damage to property of any kind. These are to be cognizable and non-bailable offences. Section 3 and 4 discuss punishment and restitution. Punishment can range from 6 months to 5 years with a maximum of 10 years for repeat offences. Penalties range from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 1 Lakh for the first offense, while fines for consecutive offenses can reach Rs. 10 Lakh. The bill also gives the court the authority to compensate advocates for wrongs done to them.

According to Section 11No Police Officer shall arrest an Advocate or investigate a case against an advocate without the explicit direction of the Chief Judicial Magistrate. When an advocate provides information to an Officer-in-Charge of a police station about the commission of any offence, the Officer-in-Charge shall enter the substance of the information in a book to be kept by such officer, and refer the information in a book to be kept by such officer, and refer the information with other related materials to the nearest Chief Judicial Magistrate, who shall hold a preliminary enquiry into the case.

Following the hearing, if the Chief Judicial Magistrate determines that the FIR was brought against the Advocate for malicious motives arising from the discharge of the Advocate's professional responsibilities, the Chief Judicial Magistrate will grant bail to the Advocate. The statute also includes a significant provision for social security. In unanticipated events like as natural catastrophe or epidemics, the legislation recommends that the state and federal governments establish arrangements to offer financial help to all needy advocates in the nation.

Every month, a minimum of Rs. 15,000 should be supplied. Section 12 states that if any public servant with investigative or arrest power under the CrPC is found in possession of or using in his investigation any privileged communication or material that can be shown to have been obtained from an advocate, it is presumed that such privileged communication or material was obtained by coercion.

This act gives an advantage to the Advocates over the others, but it is necessary and hence, cannot be held violative of Article 14 of the constitution. Crimes can be committed against anyone of any profession, but the crimes against Advocates were happening daily and it needed to be stopped and advocates needed to be protected, hence, this bill was passed and it is completely constitutional and follows the doctrine of reasonable classification.

The recent rise of assault, killing, threat, etc. caused to advocates while honestly discharging their professional duties is an alarming situation and causing discrepancies in rendering professional services to their clients. This is an effective solution provided by the legislation as these recent crimes against advocates has led to apprehension in the minds of advocates. Hence, there was also a need to provide social security to advocates and to ensure that the necessities and requirements of advocates are fulfilled. It has often been seen that the advocates are often faced with threats from rival parties while delivering the administration of justice.

Also, one of the essential tenets of the legal profession is the safeguarding of privileged communication between the advocate and the client. However, there is one fact about this bill which I think should be amended. The bill does cover all the aspects of unwarranted issues and concerns that hinder the process of justice thereby adversely affecting the advocates to carry out their duties, but the bill fails to recognise the issue of receiving fees from the clients while rendering their professional service.

The non-payments of the bills by the clients leads to multiple unpaid bills which adversely affects the livelihood of the advocates. Hence, I believe that a provision for non-payment of bills should also be introduced in this act for the collective good of the advocates.

This is a perfect example which follows the doctrine of reasonable classification and explains my opinion on why doctrine of reasonable classification is valid and constitutional. It also follows the principles of 'justice, equity, and good conscience' which is essential for the collective good of the society.

  1. ADM Jabalpur v. Shivakant Shukla (1976) SCC 521.
  2. Kesavananda Bharti v. State of Kerala (1973) SCC 225: AIR 1973 SC 1461.
  3. Ashutosh Gupta v. State of Rajasthan (2002) 4 SCC 34: AIR 2002 SC 1533.
  4. Western UP Electric Power and Supply Corporation Limited v. State of Uttar Pradesh AIR 1970 SC 21, 24.
  5. Subramanian Swamy v. CBI (2014) 8 SCC 682: 2014 (14) SCALE 79.
  6. S Seshachalam v. Bar Council of Tamil Nadu (2014) 16 SCC 72.
  7. Re Special Courts Bill, 1978, AIR 1979 SC 478: (1979) 1 SCC 380.
  8. K. Thimmappa v. Chairman, Central Board of Directors, AIR 2001 SC 467: (2001) 2 SCC 259.
  9. Union of India v. MV Valliappan (1999) 6 SCC 259, 269: AIR 1999 SC 2526.
  10. L.I.C. of India v. Consumer Education and Research Centre, AIR 1995 SC 1811, 1822: (1995) 5 SCC 482.
  11. EV Chinnaiah v. State of Andhra Pradesh (2005) 1 SCC 394: 482.
  12. Basheer alias NP Basheer v. State of Kerela (2004) 3 SCC 609: AIR 2004 SC 2757.
  13. Jagdish Pandey v. Chancellor, Bihar University AIR 1968 SC 353: (1968) 1 SCR 231.
  14. Deepak Sibal v. Punjab University AIR 1989 SC 903: (1989) 2 SCC 145.
  15. Mohd. Shujat Ali v. Union of India AIR, 1974 SC 1631: (1975) 3 SCC 76
  16. Faridabad CT Scan Centre v. DG Health Services, AIR 1997 SC 3801: (1997) 7 SCC 752
  17. Subramanian Swamy v. Raju (2014) 8 SCC 390: AIR 2014 SC 1649.
  18. Yogendra Kumar Jaiswal v. State of Bihar (2016) 3 SCC 183: 2015 (13) SCALE 508
  19. Quareshi v. State of Bihar AIR 1958 SC 731: 1959 SCR 333.
  20. Madhu Limaye v. Suptd, Tihar Jail, Delhi, AIR 1975 SC 1505: (1975) 1 SCC 525.
  21. RL Arora v. State of Uttar Pradesh AIR 1964 SC 1230: (1984) 6 SCR 784.
  22. Manchegowda v. State of Karnataka AIR, 1984 SC 1151: (1984) 3 SC 301.
  23. Chairman & MD BPL ltd. v. SP Gururaja (2003) 8 SCC 567: AIR 2003 SC 4536.
  24. Udai Ram v. Union of India AIR 1968 SC 1138
  25. Indian Airlines Limited v. Prabha D Kanan (2006) 11 SCC 67: AIR 2007 SC 548.

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