Scope of judicial review in matters of policy

Scope of judicial review in matters of policy


In Balco Employees Union (Regd.) vs. Union of India and Ors. (2002) 2 SCC 333) it was observed as follows :

“34. Applying the analogy, just as the court does not sit over the policy of Parliament in enacting the law, similarly, it is not for this Court to examine whether the policy of this disinvestment is desirable or not. Dealing with the powers of the Court while considering the validity of the decision taken in the sale of certain plants and equipment of the Sindri Fertilizer Factory, which was owned by a public sector undertaking, to the highest tenderer, this Court in Fertilizer Corpn. Kamgar Union (Regd.) vs. Union of India, SCC 568 and p. 584, while upholding the decision to sell, observed as follows (SCC para 35) :

“We certainly agree that judicial interference with the administration cannot be meticulous in our Montesquien system of separation of powers. The Court cannot usurp or abdicate, and the parameters of judicial review must be clearly defined and never exceeded. If the directorate of a government company has acted fairly, even if it has faltered in its wisdom, the court cannot, as a superauditor, take the board of directors to task. This function is limited to testing whether the administrative action has been fair and free from the taint of unreasonableness and has substantially complied with the norms of procedure set for it by rules of public administration.”

36-In State of M.P. V.Nandlal Jaiswal, the change of the policy decision taken by the State of Madhya Pradesh to grant licence for construction of distilleries for manufacture and Supply of country liquor to existing contractors was challenged. Dealing with the power of the Court in considering the validity of policy decision relating to economic matters, it was observed at pp. 605-06 as follows (SCC para 34) :

“34. But, while considering the applicability of Article 14 in such a case, we must bear in mind that, having regard to the nature of the trade or business, the Court would be slow to interfere with the policy laid down by the State Government for grant of licences for manufacture and sale of liquor. The Court would, in view of the inherently pernicious nature of the commodity allow a large measure of latitude to the State Government in determining its policy of regulating, manufacture and trade in liquor. Moreover, the grant of licences for manufacture and sale of liquor would essentially be a matter of economic policy where the Court would hesitate to intervene and strike down what the State Government has done, unless it appears to be plainly arbitrary, irrational or mala fide. We had occasion to consider the scope of interference by the Court under Article 14 while dealing with laws relating to economic activities in R. K. Garg vs. Union of India. We pointed out in that case that laws relating to economic activities should be viewed with greater latitude than laws touching civil rights such as freedom of speech, religion, etc. We observed that the legislature should be allowed some play in the joints because it has to deal with complex problems which do not admit of solution through any doctrinaire or strait-jacket formula and this is particularly true in case of legislation dealing with economic matters, where, having regard to the nature of the problems required to be dealt with, greater play in the joints has to be allowed to the legislature.

We quoted with approval the following admonition given by Frankfurter J. in Morey vs. Doud :

‘In the utilities, tax and economic regulation cases, there are good reasons for judicial self-restraint if not judicial deference to legislative judgment. The legislature after all has the affirmative responsibility. The courts have only the power to destroy, not to reconstruct. When these are added to the complexity of economic regulation, the uncertainty, the liability to error, the bewildering conflict of the experts, and the number of times the Judges have been overruled by events – self-limitation can be seen to be the path to judicial wisdom and institutional prestige and stability.’

What we said in that case in regard to legislation relating to economic matters must apply equally in regard to executive action in the field of economic activities, though the executive decision may not be placed on as high a pedestal as legislative judgment insofar as judicial deference is concerned. We must not forget that in complex economic matters every decision is necessarily empiric and it is based on experimentation or what one may call ‘trial and error method’ and, therefore, its validity cannot be tested on any rigid ‘a priori’ considerations or on the application of any strait-jacket formula. The Court must while adjudging the constitutional validity of an executive decision relating to economic matters grant a certain measure of freedom or ‘play in the joints’ to the executive.

‘The problem of Government’ as pointed out by the Supreme Court of the United States in Metropolis Theater Co. vs. State of Chicago :

‘are practical ones and may justify, if they do not require, rough accommodations, illogical, it may be, and unscientific. But even such criticism should not be hastily expressed. What is best is not discernible, the wisdom of any choice may be disputed or condemned. Mere errors of Government are not subject to our judicial review. It is only its palpably arbitrary exercises which can be declared void’. The Government, as was said in Permian Basin Area Rate cases, is entitled to make pragmatic adjustments which may be called for by particular circumstances. The Court cannot strike down a policy decision taken by the State Government merely because it feels that another policy decision would have been fairer or wiser or more scientific or logical. The Court can interfere only if the policy decision is patently arbitrary, discriminatory or mala fide. It is against the background of these observations and keeping them in mind that we must now proceed to deal with the contention of the petitioners based on Article 14 of the Constitution.

A policy decision of the Government whereby validity of contract entered into by Municipal Council with the private developer for construction of a commercial complex was impugned, came up for consideration in G. B. Mahajan vs. Jalgaon Municipal Council and it was observed at p.104 as follows (SCC para 22) :

“The criticism of the project being ‘unconventional’ does not add to or advance the legal contention any further. The question is not whether it is unconventional by the standard of the extant practices, but whether there was something in the law rendering it impermissible. There is, no doubt, a degree of public accountability in all governmental enterprises. But, the present question is one of the extent and scope of judicial review over such matters. With the expansion of the State’s presence in the field of trade and commerce and of the range of economic and commercial enterprises of Government and its instrumentalities there is an increasing dimension to governmental concern for stimulating efficiency, keeping costs down, improved management methods, prevention of time and cost overruns in projects, balancing of costs against timescales, quality control, cost-benefit ratios etc. In search of these values it might become necessary to adopt appropriate techniques of management of projects with concomitant economic expediencies. These are essentially matters of economic policy which lack adjudicative disposition, unless they violate constitutional or legal limits on power or have demonstrable pejorative environmental implications or amount to clear abuse of power. This again is the judicial recognition of administrator’s right to trial and error, as long as both trial and error are bona fide and within the limits of authority.”

To the same effect are the observations of Supreme Court in Peerless General Finance and Investment Co. Ltd. vs. Reserve Bank of India, in which Kasliwal, J. observed at p. 375 as follows :

“31- The function of the Court is to see that lawful authority is not abused but not to appropriate to itself the task entrusted to that authority. It is well settled that a public body invested with statutory powers must take care not to exceed or abuse its power. It must keep within the limits of the authority committed to it. It must act in good faith and it must act reasonably. Courts are not to interfere with economic policy which is the function of experts. It is not the function of the courts to sit in judgment over matters of economic policy and it must necessarily be left to the expert bodies. In such matters even experts can seriously and doubtlessly differ. Courts cannot be expected to decide them without even the aid of experts.”

In Premium Granites vs. State of T.N. while considering the Court’s powers in interfering with the policy decision, it was observed at p. 715 as under “54. It is not the domain of the Court to embark upon unchartered ocean of public policy in an exercise to consider as to whether a particular public policy is wise or a better public policy can be evolved. Such exercise must be left to the discretion of the executive and legislative authorities as the case may be.”

In a democracy, it is the prerogative of each elected Government to follow its own policy. Often a change in Government may result in the shift in focus or change in economic policies. Any such change may result in adversely affecting some vested interests. Unless any illegality is committed in the execution of the policy or the same is contrary to law or mala fide, a decision bringing about change cannot per se be interfered with by the Court.”


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