Could reason be overruled?
Mathews J Nedumpara
We live in a strange era, right from the law student to the eminent of the eminent lawyers, have no idea what the law of the land is! The moment a litigant enters the chamber of a lawyer and asks for the solution of a legal problem he faces, the lawyer starts searching for judgments. If you go to an elderly lawyer, you often would find him saying that the issue at hand is settled by the judgment of the privy council or of the SC in the 1950s and 1960s. His apprehension is whether the said decision has been overruled. For the benefit of my young friends in the bar, I must say that the SC, in its early days sat often as a bench of 5 judges or even more, for it felt that it is its duty to lay down the law of the land, India then becoming a republic.
I know a few occasions where judges have castigated lawyers for relying upon judgments which are overruled and thus playing fraud on the court. What has been engaging my mind for pretty long, is if reason is law and the precedent is “the reason for the judgment”, namely, ratio decidendi, logically thinking, is it possible for a later bench of a larger strength to overrule the reason for the previous judgment? I believe to assert so, as is the current practice, is against the fundamental principles of jurisprudence.
What is a precedent is the ‘reason for the decision’ and not the decision, while the latter is res judicata. The strength of the bench, as also the concept of majority qua minority of the bench are matters in the province of ‘res judicata’. For instance, a matter which a single judge is competent to decide, he may choose to refer to a division bench and the division bench, considering the importance of the issues may refer it to a full bench or even to a larger bench. The strength of the bench and the division in opinion among the judges are relevant so far as res judicata, nay, the finality of the decision is concerned. However, in actual practice, we treat the decision which is binding as ‘res judicata’ as a ‘precedent’ as well, to be applied in future cases. The result is that an erroneous decision distinct from the reason for the decision is made binding for posterity, who were strangers to the original case. I can write volumes on the injustice resulting from the misconception that precedent is not the ‘reason for the decision’, but the ‘decision’ where a court is free to err, and the resultant concept of even overruling of judgments of a lesser strength bench by larger benches in future, the classic example of the injustice resulting from the failure to notice the real meaning of the concept of ‘res judicata’ and ‘stare decisis’ and the distinction between the same, to name a few, are Minerva Mills, Judges-2, Judges-3, NJAC case and the Church cases.