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Case Analysis of Raja Ram v/s Jai Prakash Singh

Facts Of The Case:
The Plaintiff and Defendant were brothers. Their father, since deceased, used to live with the defendant. The father executed a sale deed dated 2nd March 1970 in favour of the defendant. Thereafter, he expired on 21st April 1971, just ten months after the sale deed was executed.

The plaintiff alleged that the defendant made their father sign the sale deed in his favour, fraudulently, taking advantage of the old age and sickness of the father which placed the defendant in a position to dominate his will. Thus, the plaintiff challenged the validity of the sale deed on grounds of undue influence.

Judgments Before The Appeal
The suit was dismissed by the Trial Court.
The first appellate court allowed the appeal and held that that the defendant was unsuccessful in proving that he did not abuse the position of dominance he had over the old-aged father and that the sale deed was not signed by the father under undue influence.

In the second Appeal, the High Court agreed with the decision of the Trial Court and dismissed the suit.

Aggrieved by the decision of the High court, the Appellant approached the Supreme Court.

Appellant's Arguments:
The appellant pleaded that their deceased father was unable to move and walk and had a weakened eyesight due to cataract because of which he was bedridden for approximately the last 8 to 10 years. He further claimed that the mental capacity of his father was also impaired due to old age and sickness. Thus, he was totally dependent on the respondent with whom he lived and therefore, the respondent was in a position to dominate his will and exercise undue influence over him.

The appellant further pointed out that the only witnesses to the sale deed were his mother and the respondent's wife who were related to the respondent and thus their testimony was not credible.

Respondent's Arguments:
The respondent claimed that the first appellate court had erroneously placed the burden of proof upon him as the appellant was not able to establish a prima facie case of undue influence against him. He pleaded that just because their father was suffering from old age and infirmity, the appellant could not assert that he was deprived of his mental abilities to not be in a position to determine the nature and consequences of the agreements entered into by him. He did have a deteriorating eyesight, and was unable to move freely due to his old age but there is no credible evidence that he was bedridden as claimed by the appellant.

The respondent further pointed out that just two years earlier in 1968, the father had effected another sale deed in favour of some third persons and no proof of any rapid worsening in the health of the father during this period, had been provided by the appellants. Based on this fact, the respondent claimed that his father still possessed the necessary foresight and knowledge required when entering into such transactions and his mental capabilities were not affected due to old age.

The respondent claimed that his mother and wife though related to him, were the only witnesses to the signing of the sale deed and therefore, their account of the series of events which took place before the Sub-Registrar have to be accepted. According to their account, the father was present in front of the Sub-Registrar for registration which goes contrary to the claim of the appellants that he was bedridden. After confirming the terms of the sale deed , he put his thumb impression over the document.

The Sub-Registrar also did not find his mental and physical condition to be so deteriorated so as to lack the capacity of giving consent, at the time of registration. Relying on the observation of the apex court that unless rebutted, a registered instrument has a presumption of accuracy[1], the respondent pleaded that his father had signed the sale deed out of his own free will and he was not unduly influenced by the respondent to do so.

Judgment
The Supreme Court evaluated the following concerns to arrive at a judgement in this case:
  • Were the father's physical and mental capabilities so badly affected so as to not be able to know the nature of the transaction he was entering into?
    The court refused to accept the appellant's claim that the father was mentally impaired as no evidence was provided regarding his disturbed mental status and old age cannot lead to the presumption of complete loss of mental faculties of a person as ageing affects each individual differently.

    The court considered the fact that the father had entered into a similar transaction involving a sale deed with a third party just two years prior, without any evidence of his condition deteriorating over this period which shows that he was capable of taking decision to enter into such transactions. Also, he was present before the Sub-Registrar for registration which means that he was not bedridden.

    He put his thumb impression on the sale deed and accepted the entire consideration in front of the Sub-Registrar which led the court to conclude that he did not lack reason and was mentally sound. He was capable of making his own decisions while fully understanding the nature of transaction he was entering into.
     
  • Had the respondent unduly influenced the will of the father to make him sign the sale deed in his favour?
    The apex court pointed out that to establish a case of undue influence, the appellants must lay out the exact nature of the influence exerted, in what manner the other party was influenced, and what unfair advantage was gained by the respondent as a result [2]. But it observed that in this case, the arguments made by the appellants were wholly devoid of any description with regard to the nature, manner or kind of undue influence they claim was exercised by the respondent over the father.

    The father and the respondent were no doubt in a fiduciary relationship and his conduct in looking after the father in old age may have influenced his decision to confer some benefit upon his son, but this alone cannot give rise to the assumption that the respondent was in a position to dominate the will of the father and he abused this position to make him sign the sale deed.

    The court relied upon the Subhas Chandra [3] case which distinguished between influence and undue influence and stated by if the parties were related to each other by blood , an unquestionable presumption of undue influence cannot arise automatically unless there is some evidence of abuse of such relation. It was further observed by the court in this case that imposition could not be presumed merely because one of the parties was old and sick.

    The court also did not find the sale deed to be unconscionable per se. Thus, it concluded that the appellant was not able to establish a prima facie case against the respondent which would have then shifted the burden upon him to disprove any such undue influence.

    Since the court found that the requisites of undue influence were not established by the appellants, it reaffirmed the decision of the High Court and dismissed the appeal.

Analysis:
When two parties enter into an agreement it may happen that one of them is in a superior position in relation to the other in terms of authority, knowledge, mental capacity or any other factor, which places that party in a position to dominate the will of the other so as to obtain his consent to the agreement, which, but for this influence the other party may have not have given. Such relations between parties which enables one of them to dominate the will of the other is a sine qua non for undue influence to come into play.

The second important requirement to establish undue influence is abuse of such relation. This 'abuse' can be very subtle. Where there is active trust and confidence between the parties or the parties are not on equal footing, there may be a natural influence which one party may exercise over the other, thus abusing his position of dominance to his own advantage. [4]

In certain cases, it is obvious that one party is placed superior to other in an agreement and therefore, a presumption of undue influence is raised whereby it is presumed that the party who was in a dominating position must have used it to obtain unfair advantage over the other. The burden then shifts to the defendant to rebut such presumption.[5]

But as held in Subhas Chandra Das Mushib v. Ganga Prasad Das Mushib it is not necessary that every person who occupies a position of dominance will abuse it. When the parties are in a fiduciary relationship, they place trust and confidence in each other which may lead to a possibility of abuse of such relation, but presumption of undue influence only because of near relationship has been held not to be permissible.[6]

Sometimes just a plain application of law to the facts does not work in a case and therefore the courts of equity devised another test of 'unconscionability' to evaluate if an agreement was induced by undue influence. An unconscionable contract is one that contains so harsh and irrational terms in view of current business practices that it should not be enforced.

Lord Scarman has stated that:
"Definition is a poor instrument when used to determine whether a transaction is or is not unconscionable: this is a question which depends upon the particular facts of the case".[7]

Therefore, this test of unconscionability is a fact specific inquiry.

In the present case, the Supreme Court followed the line of reasoning laid down in Subash Chandra and did not presume undue influence on part of the respondent just because his father was suffering from old age and infirmities. It closely analysed pleadings of the appellants to evaluate if a prima facie case for undue influence was established or not. When it did not find any substance in the arguments made by the appellant, it embarked upon its own inquiry as to if the sale deed in question was unconscionable per se.

When the apex court was satisfied upon direct application of law to fact that none of the requisites of undue influence were established by the appellant, it rightly dismissed the appeal and upheld the decision of the High Court.

Looking after the elderly parents is considered as the sacred and pious duty in almost all religions and castes. Regardless, only a few people fulfill this obligation nowadays due to their fast-paced life and in pursuit of their career goals. There is naturally bound to be more attachment and affection of the parents with such offspring who takes care of them in their old and weak state so if they confer some benefit upon such offspring as a token of gratitude it cannot be considered as undue influence and this judgement rightly confirms the same.

If the court imposes an automatic burden upon the young adults looking after their parents to prove that they did not exercise undue influence to obtain any benefit from them, without any substantial proof of the same, it will discourage such individuals from undertaking this sacred duty. It may not always lead to complete neglect but will certainly give rise to apprehensions in their minds, who may then fail to exercise proper care and attention towards their old-aged parents.

End-Notes:
  1. Bellachi (Dead) by LRs v. Pakeeran, (2009) 12 SCC 95
  2. Ladli Prasad Jaiswal vs Karnal Distillery Co.Ltd., & Ors, AIR 1963 SC 1279.
  3. Subhas Chandra Das Mushib v. Ganga Prasad Das Mushib, AIR 1967 SC 878.
  4. Avtar Singh, Contract & Specific Relief, 183-184 (13th ed., 2022).
  5. Krishna Mohan Kul v Pratima Maity, AIR 2003 SC 4351.
  6. M. Ramasamy v Rengammal, AIR 2003 SC 3120.
  7. National Westminster Bank P&C v Morgan, (1985) 2 WLR 588 (HL).

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