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wednesbury principle

Supreme Court of India

Chairman, All Railway Rec. Board & ... vs K. Shyam Kumar & Ors on 6 May, 2010

16. Judicial review conventionally is concerned with the question of jurisdiction and natural justice and the Court is not much concerned with the merits of the decision but how the decision was reached. In Council of Civil Service Unions Vs. Minister of State for Civil Service (1984) 3 All ER 935 the (GCHQ Case) the House of Lords rationalized the grounds of judicial review and ruled that the basis of judicial review could be highlighted under three principal heads, namely, illegality, procedural impropriety and irrationality. Illegality as a ground of judicial review means that the decision maker must understand correctly the law that regulates his decision making powers and must give effect to it. Grounds such as acting ultra vires, errors of law and/or fact, onerous conditions, improper purpose, relevant and irrelevant factors, acting in bad faith, fettering discretion, unauthorized delegation, failure to act etc., fall under the heading "illegality". Procedural impropriety may be due to the failure to comply with the mandatory procedures such as breach of natural justice, such as audi alteram partem, absence of bias, the duty to act fairly, legitimate expectations, failure to give reasons etc.

17. Ground of irrationality takes in Wednesbury unreasonableness propounded in Associated Provincial Picture Houses Limited v. Wednesbury Corporation (1947)2 All ER 680, Lord Greene MR alluded to the grounds of attack which could be made against the decision, citing unreasonableness as an `umbrella concept' which covers the major heads of review and pointed out that the court can interfere with a decision if it is so absurd that no reasonable decision maker would in law come to it. In GCHQ Case (supra) Lord Diplock fashioned the principle of unreasonableness and preferred to use the term irrationality as follows:

"By `irrationality' I mean what can now be succinctly referred to as "Wednesbury's unreasonableness", ....... It applies to a decision which is so outrageous in its defiance of logic or of accepted moral standards that no sensible person who had applied his mind to the question to be decided could have arrived at it."

18. In R. v. Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Brind (1991) 1 All ER 720, the House of Lords re-examined the reasonableness of the exercise of the Home Secretary's discretion to issue a notice banning the transmission of speech by representatives of the Irish Republican Army and its political party, Sinn Fein. Court ruled that the exercise of the Home Secretary's power did not amount to an unreasonable exercise of discretion despite the issue involving a denial of freedom of expression. House of Lords however, stressed that in all cases raising a human rights issue proportionality is the appropriate standard of review. The House of Lords in R (Daly) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department (2001) 2 AC 532 demonstrated how the traditional test of Wednesbury unreasonableness has moved towards the doctrine of necessity and proportionality. Lord Steyn noted that the criteria of proportionality are more precise and more sophisticated than traditional grounds of review and went on to outline three concrete differences between the two:-

(1) Proportionality may require the reviewing Court to assess the balance which the decision maker has struck, not merely whether it is within the range of rational or reasonable decisions.

(2) Proportionality test may go further than the traditional grounds of review in as much as it may require attention to be directed to the relative weight accorded to interests and considerations.

(3) Even the heightened scrutiny test is not necessarily appropriate to the protection of human rights.

19. Lord Steyn also felt most cases would be decided in the same way whatever approach is adopted, though conceded for human right cases proportionality is the appropriate test.

20. The question arose as to whether doctrine of proportionality applies only where fundamental human rights are in issue or whether it will come to provide all aspects of judicial review. Lord Steyn in R. (Alconbury Development Limited) v. Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (2001) 2 All ER 929 stated as follows:-

"I consider that even without reference to the Human Rights Act, 1998 the time has come to recognize that this principle (proportionality) is part of English administrative law not only when Judges are dealing with Community acts but also when they are dealing with acts subject to domestic law. Trying to keep the Wednesbury principle and proportionality in separate compartments seems to me to be unnecessary and confusing".

21. Lord Steyn was of the opinion that the difference between both the principles was in practice much less than it was sometimes suggested and whatever principle was applied the result in the case was the same. Whether the proportionality will ultimately supersede the concept of reasonableness or rationality was also considered by Dyson Lord Justice in R. (Association of British Civilian Internees: Far East Region) v. Secretary of State for Defence [2003] QB 1397 and stated as follows:-

"We have difficulty in seeing what justification there now is for retaining Wednesbury test ..... but we consider that it is not for this Court to perform burial rights. The continuing existence of the Wednesbury test has been acknowledged by House of Lords on more than one occasion. A survey of the various judgments of House of Lords, Court of Appeals, etc. would reveal for the time being both the tests continued to co-exist."

22. Position in English Administrative Law is that both the tests that is. Wednesbury and proportionality continue to co-exist and the proportionality test is more and more applied, when there is violation of human rights, and fundamental freedom and the Wednesbury finds its presence more on the domestic law when there is violations of citizens ordinary rights. Proportionality principle has not so far replaced the Wednesbury principle and the time has not reached to say good bye to Wednesbury much less its burial.

23. In Huang case (2007) 4 All ER 15 (HL), the House of Lords was concerned with the question whether denial of asylum infringes Article 8 (Right to Respect Family Life) of the Human Rights Act, 1998. House of Lords ruled that it was the duty of the authorities when faced with individuals who did not qualify under the rules to consider whether the refusal of asylum status was unlawful on the ground that it violated the individual's right to family life. A structured proportionality test has emerged from that decision in the context of the violation of human rights. In R (Daly) (supra) the House of Lords considered both common law and Article 8 of the convention and ruled that the policy of excluding prisoners from their cells while prison officers conducted searches, which included scrutinizing privileged legal correspondence was unlawful.

24. Both the above-mentioned cases, mainly concerned with the violation of human rights under the Human Rights Act, 1998 but demonstrated the movement away from the traditional test of Wednesbury unreasonableness towards the test of proportionality. But it is not safe to conclude that the principle of Wednesbury unreasonableness has been replaced by the doctrine of proportionality.

25. Justice S.B. Sinha, as His Lordship then was, speaking for the Bench in State of U.P. v. Sheo Shanker Lal Srivastava and Others (2006) 3 SCC 276 after referring to the judgment of the Court of appeal in Huang v. Secretary of State for the Home Department (2005) 3 All ER 435, R. v. Secretary of State of the Home Department, ex parte Daly (2001) 3 All ER 433 (HL) opined that Wednesbury principle may not now be held to be applicable in view of the development in constitutional law and held as follows:-

"24. While saying so, we are not oblivious of the fact that the doctrine of unreasonableness is giving way to the doctrine of proportionality.

25. It is interesting to note that the Wednesbury principles may not now be held to be applicable in view of the development in constitutional law in this behalf. See, for example, Huang v. Secy. of State for the Home Deptt. wherein referring to R. v. Secy. of State of the Home Deptt., ex p Daly, it was held that in certain cases, the adjudicator may require to conduct a judicial exercise which is not merely more intrusive than Wednesbury, but involves a full-blown merit judgment, which is yet more than ex p. Daly, requires on a judicial review where the court has to decide a proportionality issue."

26. Sheo Shanker Lal Srivastava case was later followed in Indian Airlines Ltd. v. Prabha D. Kanan (2006) 11 SCC 67. Following the above mentioned two judgments in Jitendra Kumar And Others v. State of Haryana and Another (2008) 2 SCC 161, the Bench has referred to a passage in HWR Wade and CF Forsyth on Administrative Law, 9th Edition. (2004), pages 371- 372 with the caption "Goodbye to Wednesbury" and quoted from the book which reads as follows:-

"The Wednesbury doctrine is now in terminal decline but the coup de grace has not yet fallen, despite calls for it from very high authorities" and opined that in some jurisdictions the doctrine of unreasonableness is giving way to doctrine of proportionality."

27. Indian Airlines Ltd.'s case and Sheo Shanker Lal Srivastava's case (supra) were again followed in State of Madhya Pradesh and Others v. Hazarilal, (2008) 3 SCC 273 and the Bench opined as follows:-

"Furthermore the legal parameters of judicial review have undergone a change. Wednesbury principle of unreasonableness has been replaced by the doctrine of proportionality.".

28. With due respect, we are unable to subscribe to that view, which is an overstatement of the English Administrative Law.

29. Wednesbury principle of unreasonableness as such has not been replaced by the doctrine of proportionality though that test is being applied more and more when violation of human rights is alleged. H.W.R. Wade & C.F. Forsyth in the 10th Edition of Administrative Law (2009), has omitted the passage quoted by this court in Jitender Kumar case and stated as follows:

"Notwithstanding the apparent persuasiveness of these views the coup de grace has not yet fallen on Wednesbury unreasonableness. Where a matter falls outside the ambit of 1998 Act, the doctrine is regularly relied upon by the courts. Reports of its imminent demise are perhaps exaggerated." (emphasis applied).

30. Wednesbury and Proportionality - Wednesbury applies to a decision which is so reprehensible in its defiance of logic or of accepted moral or ethical standards that no sensible person who had applied his mind to the issue to be decided could have arrived at it. Proportionality as a legal test is capable of being more precise and fastidious than a reasonableness test as well as requiring a more intrusive review of a decision made by a public authority which requires the courts to `assess the balance or equation' struck by the decision maker. Proportionality test in some jurisdictions is also described as the "least injurious means" or "minimal impairment" test so as to safeguard fundamental rights of citizens and to ensure a fair balance between individual rights and public interest. Suffice to say that there has been an overlapping of all these tests in its content and structure, it is difficult to compartmentalize or lay down a straight jacket formula and to say that Wednesbury has met with its death knell is too tall a statement. Let us, however, recognize the fact that the current trend seems to favour proportionality test but Wednesbury has not met with its judicial burial and a state burial, with full honours is surely not to happen in the near future.

31. Proportionality, requires the Court to judge whether action taken was really needed as well as whether it was within the range of courses of action which could reasonably be followed. Proportionality is more concerned with the aims and intention of the decision-maker and whether the decision- maker has achieved more or less the correct balance or equilibrium. Courts entrusted with the task of judicial review has to examine whether decision taken by the authority is proportionate, i.e. well balanced and harmonious, to this extent court may indulge in a merit review and if the court finds that the decision is proportionate, it seldom interferes with the decision taken and if it finds that the decision is disproportionate i.e. if the court feels that it is not well balanced or harmonious and does not stand to reason it may tend to interfere.

32. Leyland and Anthony on Textbook on Administrative Law (5th edn. OUP, 2005) at p.331 has amply put as follows:

"Proportionality works on the assumption that administrative action ought not to go beyond what is necessary to achieve its desired results (in every day terms, that you should not use a sledgehammer to crack a nut) and in contrast to irrationality is often understood to bring the courts much closer to reviewing the merits of a decision".

33. Courts have to develop an indefeasible and principled approach to proportionality till that is done there will always be an overlapping between the traditional grounds of review and the principle of proportionality and the cases would continue to be decided in the same manner whichever principle is adopted. Proportionality as the word indicates has reference to variables or comparison, it enables the Court to apply the principle with various degrees of intensity and offers a potentially deeper inquiry into the reasons, projected by the decision maker.

05.Wednesbury Principle
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