Whether rule of construction derived from royal prerogative in England can still be said to apply in India after January 26, 1950.

Wanchoo, J.

The most important question thus is, whether the rule of construction derived from the royal prerogative in England can still be said to apply in India after January 26, 1950. If this rule of construction based on the royal prerogative does not apply, it would necessarily follow that the ordinary rule of construction, namely, that the State would also be bound by the law like anybody else unless it is expressly excluded or excluded by necessary implication, would apply. Now the rule of construction based on the royal prerogative is a survival from the medieval theory of divine right of Kings and the conception that the sovereign was absolutely perfect, with the result that the common law of England evolved the maxim that “the King can do no wrong”. In course of time however the royal prerogative in England was held to have been created and limited by the common law and the sovereign could claim no prerogatives, except such as the law allowed nor such as were contrary to Magna Carta or any other statute or to the liberties of the subject. The courts also had jurisdiction to inquire into the existence or extent of any alleged prerogative. If any prerogative was disputed, they had to decide the question whether or not it existed in the same way as they decided any other question of law. If a prerogative was clearly established, they could take the same judicial notice of it as they took of any other rule of law : (see Halsbury’s Laws of England, 3rd Edition, Vol. 7, p. 221, para. 464).

34. The question of royal prerogative was also considered in Attorney-General v. De Keyser’s Royal Hotel Limited [1920] A.C. 508 It was held therein that even where there was prerogative it could be curtailed by a statute, if the statute dealt with something which before it could be affected by the prerogative, inasmuch as the Crown was a party to every Act of Parliament. Thus in modern times, the royal prerogative is the residue of discretionary or arbitrary authority which at any time is legally left in the hands of the Crown and is recognised under the common law of England. Two things are clear from this modern conception of royal prerogative, namely, (1) that there must be a Crown or King to whom the royal prerogative attaches, and (2) that the prerogative must be part of the common law of England. Both these conditions existed when the Privy Council decision in Province of Bombay v. Municipal Corporation of the City of Bombay (1946) L.R. 73 IndAp 271 was given in October 1946; the King was still there and the Privy Council held that the English common law rule of construction applied to Indian legislation as much as to English statutes. I may mention however that in England also the rule has come in for criticism by writers of books on law. Glanville L. Williams in his treatise on “Crown Proceedings” says at p. 53 :

“The rule originated in the Middle Ages, when it perhaps had some justification. Its survival, however, is due to little but the vis inertiae.”

Again at 54, the author says –

“With the great extension in the activities of the States and the number of servants employed by it, and with the modern idea, expressed in the Crown Proceedings Act,” (compare in this connection Art. 300 of our Constitution), “that the State should be accountable in wide measure to the law, the presumption should be that a statute binds the Crown rather than it does not.”

35. After January 26, 1950, when our country became a democratic republic and the King ceased to exist, it is rather otiose to talk of the royal prerogative. It is also well to remember that the English common law as such never applied to India, except in the territories covered by the original side of the three Chartered High Courts, namely, Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, (see Kahirodebihari Datta v. Mangobinda PandaI.L.R. [1934] Cal. 841 though sometimes rules of English common law were applied by Indian courts on grounds of justice, equity and good conscience. It seems to me therefore that to apply to Indian statutes a construction based on the royal prerogative as known to the common law of England now when there is no Crown in this country and when the common law of England was generally not even applicable, (except in a very small part), would be doing violence to the ordinary principle of construction of statutes, namely, that only those are not bound by a statute who are either expressly exempted or must be held to be exempt by necessary implication.

36. In our country the Rule of Law prevails and our Constitution has guaranteed it by the provisions contained in Pt. III thereof as well as by other provisions in other Parts : (see Virendra Singh and Others Vs. The State of Uttar Pradesh, . It is to my mind inherent in the conception of the rule of Law that the State, no less than its citizens and others, is bound by the laws of the land. When the King as the embodiment of all power – executive, legislative and judicial – has disappeared and in our republican Constitution, sovereign power has been distributed among various organs created thereby, it seems to me that there is neither justification nor necessity for continuing the rule of construction based on the royal prerogative. It is said that though the King has gone, sovereignty still exists and therefore what was the prerogative of the King has become the prerogative of the sovereign. There is to my mind a misconception here. It is true that sovereignty must exist under our Constitution; but there is no sovereign as such now. In England, however, the King is synonymous with the sovereign and so arose the royal prerogative, But in our country it would be impossible now to point to one person or institution and to say that he or it is the sovereign under the Constitution. A further question may arise, if one is in search of a sovereign now, whether the State Government with which one is concerned here is sovereign in the same sense as the English King (though it may have plenary powers under the limits set under our Constitution). This to my mind is another reason why there being no King or sovereign as such now in our country, the rule of construction based on the royal prerogative can no longer be invoked.

37. Reliance was placed in this connection on certain cases from Australia and Canada and also from the United States of America. So far as Australia and Canada are concerned, the cases are not of much help for the Crown exists there still. Besides in Canada and in most of the provinces of Canada and in New Zealand provisions have been specifically introduced in the Interpretation Acts laying down that no provision or enactment in any Act shall affect, in any manner whatsoever, the rights of His Majesty, his heirs or successors, unless it is expressly stated therein that His Majesty shall be bound thereby : (see Street on “Governmental Liability”, at p. 152).

In the United States also, it is doubtful if the royal prerogative as such is relied on as the basis of certain principles which are in force there. In United States of America v. United Mine workers of America, Etc. (1947)330 U.S. 258 : 91 L. Ed. 884 the Supreme Court did say that there was an old and well-known rule that statutes which in general terms divested pre-existing rights and privileges would not be applied to the sovereign without express words to that effect. But there was no discussion of the royal prerogative as such in the judgment and the rule was called a well-established rule of construction only. Besides the Court went on to consider the words of the statutes under consideration and held that on a proper construction of them the United States was not bound.

38. In United States of America v. Reginald P. Wittek (1949) 337 U.S. 346 : 93 L. Ed. 1406 Supreme Court did say that a general statute imposing restrictions does not impose them upon the government itself without a clear expression or implication to that effect; but this decision was based mainly on the terms of the State statute there under consideration and the surrounding circumstances and legislative history of the statute concerned. Another case in the same volume is Jess Larson v. Domestic and Foreign Commerce Corporation (1949) 337 U.S. 682 : 93 L. Ed. 1628 at p. 1628, where a suit was brought against an officer of the United States and it was held that it was in substance a suit against the sovereign government over which the court in the absence of consent had no jurisdiction. There is no discussion in this case of the royal prerogative having continued in the United States and the decision seems to have turned on some law of that country which provides that a suit against the Government could not be tried in a court in the absence of consent. As against these decisions I may refer to H. Snowden Marshall v. People of the State of New York (1920) 254 U.S. 380 : 65 L. Ed. 315 to show that royal prerogative as such is losing ground in the United States, if nothing more. When dealing with the priority of a State over the unsecured creditors in payment of debts out of the assets of the debtor, the Supreme Court held that whether the priority was a prerogative right or merely a right of administration was a matter of local law and the decision of the highest court of the State as to the existence of the right and its incidents would be accepted by the Federal Supreme Court as conclusive. Again in Guaranty Trust Company of New York v. United States of America (1938) 304 U.S. 126 : 82 L. Ed. 1224 the Supreme Court held that the immunity of the sovereign from the operation of statutes of limitation, although originally a matter of royal prerogative, was now based upon the public policy of protecting the citizens of the State from the loss of their public rights and revenues through the negligence of the officers of the State, showing that some of those immunities which in England were claimed as royal prerogatives, though preserved in the United States, were so preserved for other reasons. Besides it must not be forgotten that though the Crown no longer remained in the United States after the attainment of independence the American colonies out of which the United State arose were colonised by English settlors who carried the common law of England with them to America with the result that the first Constitution of some of the States (like New York) after independence provided that the common law of England which together with the statutes constituted the law of the colony before independence should be and continue to be the law of the State subject to such alterations as its legislature might thereafter make : (see H. Snowden Marshall v. People of the State of New York(1920) 254 U.S. 380; 65 L. Ed. 315 at p. 317). That may account for the United States recognising some of those prerogative rights which were in force in England; though even so, the basis for such recognition is now more the law or public policy than any royal prerogative as such. The position in our country was somewhat different. We had the King but the common law of England did not, as already indicated, apply as a rule in this country. Now that the King has also gone, there seems to be no reason for continuing the royal prerogatives after January 26, 1950.

39. Further it appears to me that the royal prerogative where it deals with substantive rights of the Crown as against its subjects, as, for example, the priority of Crown debts over debts of the same nature owing to the subject, stands on a different footing from the royal prerogative put forward in the present case, which is really no more than a rule of construction of statute passed by Parliament. Where, for example, a royal prerogative dealing with a substantive right has been accepted by the Courts in India as applicable here also, it becomes a law in force which will continue in force under Art. 372(1) of the Constitution. But where the royal prerogative is merely a rule of construction of statutes based on the existence of the Crown in England and for historical reasons, I fail to see why in a democratic republic, the courts should not follow the ordinary principle of construction that no one is exempt from the operation of a statute unless the statute expressly grants the exemption or the exemption arises by necessary implication. On the whole therefore I am of opinion that the proper rule of construction which should now be applied, at any rate after January 26, 1950, is that the State in India whether in the center or in the States is bound by the law unless there is an express exemption in favour of the State or an exemption can be inferred by necessary implication.




Categories: CIVIL