Principle of Natural Justice: Right to Fair Hearing

Reading time: 8-10 minutes.

Judges are deemed to be the guardian of the legal system because they interpret the law and serve justice. However, the legal system ensures that they are also bound to conform to certain principles in order to uphold the spirit of the law. Interestingly, these principles are not explicitly codified. They find their derivation from natural law. They have rather been inherently present in the human conscience. They help in ensuring that the decisions taken by the courts encompass fairness and reasonability. Deprivation of fairness negates the point of having laws in the first place. If after knocking the doors of court, you are denied justice, then there is no point of approaching the court in the first place. Thus, these principles help in safeguarding the rights and in implementing the law better. They help to avert miscarriage of justice.

Although there is no statute dealing with the principles of natural justice, however, in India, we refer to them as the minimum fair procedure that needs to be followed by administrative authorities, in order to upload the prevalence of law. Natural Justice is a concept of common law and represents higher procedural principles developed by the courts, which every judicial, quasi-judicial and administrative agency must follow while taking any decision adversely affecting the rights of a private individual.

In India, the principles of natural justice are firmly grounded in article 14 & 21 of the Constitution. Article 14 guarantees equality before law and equal protection of law to all the citizens of India and Article 21 guarantees the right to life and liberty to all the persons in India to protect liberty and ensure life with dignity, which is the elementary provision. Article 22 ensures the right to natural justice and provision of opportunity of fair hearing to the arrested person. Additionally, constitutional remedies are guaranteed under Articles 32,226, and 136 in the matters pertaining to the violation of any of fundamental rights as well as in the cases of deprivation of the principles of natural justice.

The concept of Natural Justice

The principles of natural justice refer to certain rules laid down, in order to safeguard the sanctity of the judicial process. They are laid down majorly by courts and need to be kept in mind by every judicial, quasi-judicial and administrative body, while carrying out its functions. The characteristic of these principles is that their breach is evident on the face of the judgement. They require the justice to not only to be done but also “seen to be done”. They aim to prevent arbitrariness from creeping into the decisions. Thus, principle of natural justice can be considered the minimum aegis available to protect the rights of individuals.

Salient features

The principles of natural justice can be narrowed down to the two Latin maxims- Nemo judex in causa sua (Rule against bias) and Audi-alteram partem (Hear the other side). These along with “reasoned decisions” form the pillars of this concept.

  • Rule Against Bias (Nemo judex in causa sua)

This rule emphasises on the need of having decisions free from prejudices. An example from the world of cinema could be taken here to explain this concept. 12 Angry men, which is considered one of the finest legal movies ever, tried to highlight the importance of unbiased decisions. In this, a juror was adamant to give a death penalty to an accused, who was being prosecuted for killing his father, due to his own personal prejudices. He was biased in his approach because of his own strained relations with his son. Thus, he was judging the case through a tainted vision and was about to commit a serious miscarriage of justice.

The judges are supposed to decide cases with as much objectivity as they can, on the basis of evidence presented. It is important that biases, which can be personal, pecuniary, departmental, etc do not creep in. Otherwise, the purpose of the hearing will be defeated in itself. Most notably, in A.K. Kraipak v. Union of India, the member of the selection committee was also a candidate for a specific post. The court found it to be violative of principle of natural justice because it had a high likelihood of partiality seeping in the final decision.

  •  The Rule of Fair Hearing (Audi alter partem)

All the parties shall be given a reasonable opportunity to present their case properly. The legal maxim “audi alter partem” translates to “no one shall be condemned unheard”.  A person against whom the case is being decided should be given a fair chance to defend himself and to be heard. This forms the fundamental of the entire principle and a violation of this principle leads to a gross injustice. There are five components under this principle. 

  • Notice: A notice should be issued to the parties with respect to the charges. It should expressly mention the charge that forms the basis of a particular proceeding. It should also be ensured that the person is tried and punished only for the charges that are mentioned in the mentioned in the notice. Also, the time, place, nature of hearing along with the legal authority in front of which the case will be heard, should be enclosed in the notice. In Car Sales Co-operative Society v Andhra Pradesh, the court held that there has been a violation of principles of natural justice because a notice was not served timely.
  • Adequate Opportunity of being heard and Right to present the case and evidence: The parties should be provided with an adequate opportunity of being heard. Provision of this opportunity should not be a mere formality but rather, it should be fair and reasonable. In Smt. Ritu Devi v. CIT, the court held that the assessee has not been provided with a fair opportunity because only a single day was provided.  Thus, after a notice is served, a reasonable amount of time should be given to the party to present the case and the evidence.
  • Right to Cross Examination: The ambit of fair hearing also extends to the right of cross examination. The definition of cross examination is given under section 137 of the Indian Evidence Act. It is seen a violation of principles of natural justice if the right to cross examination is denied by the tribunals. However, this right is not available in each and every case. In Hari Nath Mishra v. Rajendra Medical College, this right was denied as in this particular case.
  • Right to Legal Representative: In legal proceedings, each party has a right to be represented by a lawyer. Not everybody is privileged enough to afford a lawyer for representation. The state has to ensure that they are provided with a legal representative, otherwise this will simply lead to denial of these principles. The National Legal Services Authority and the State Legal Services Authorities play a major role to provide legal aid to the underprivileged.  The Supreme Court, in M.H Hoskot v. State of Maharashtra held that the right to free legal aid comes under the ambit of just, fair and reasonable procedure. It can be implied under article 21.
  • Disclosure of all evidence and materials: It is pertinent to disclose all the evidence and material so as to provide an opportunity to the other party to present his case in its entirety by contradicting anything prejudicial against it.
  • Reasoned Decisions

In order to further protect the rights of the parties, it is required that the decisions should be well reasoned. This also increases the transparency and thus faith in the process. They help in negating arbitrariness. This can be seen as a key to the psyche of the judges. In Asst. Commissioner Commercial Tax Department, Works Contract and Leasing Quota v. Shukla & Bros, the Apex court recognised the importance of passing a reasoned decision because otherwise it can lead to harassment and arbitrariness.

Origin

The derivation of the English word “natural justice” can be credited to the Roman word ‘Jus Naturale’. It is not man made, rather it has always been present in moral conscience of human beings. The Romans felt that these principles are evident per se in nature and thus there existed no need for codification.  Thus, the seeds of origin of the principles of natural justice had been sown by the early Greek and Roman.

In India, the early traces of principles of natural justice can be found in the works of Kautilya. His concept of “dharma” closely resembles this principle. Ashoka the great emperor is also credited for laying down the foundations of this principle due to the judgements delivered by him. This concept was introduced by the court in the case of Mohinder Singh Gill v. Chief Election Commissioner. The Supreme Court held that the judicial, quasi-judicial and administrative work should be governed by the facet of fairness.

Critical analysis

The principle of natural justice acts as a torch- bearer for all the legal or administrative proceedings.  It is guardian of justice. It forms rather an indispensable part of our judiciary system. This sacrosanct principle however is not free from certain drawbacks.  It is more of a subjective concept because the notion of justice is different for everyone.  For example, the idea of a fair chance of hearing differs for each individual. Thus, it fails to bring out the objectivity in decisions which it originally strives for. Thus, it can be construed as more of an abstract concept. Another criticism of these principles is that it sometimes impedes the process and therefore denying justice in the form of delays. It is also held responsible for complicating the procedures at time. Moreover, its application is not practical in every case. Most notably, in R. Radhakrishnan v. Osmania University, due to administrative impracticability, the principles of natural justice were denied.

The right of fair hearing, however, does not recognise the right of representation by a lawyer, unless the said right is conferred by the statute. There is a need to make this right a principle of natural justice as not each and every person is competent enough to present his case himself and should be given a chance to present his/her case fairly. Therefore, there are certain lacunae associated with the right to fair hearing as a principle of natural justice.

Conclusion

It can be seen that principle of natural justice forms the foundation of the process of imparting justice. These are not only the guidelines for the judges but also the safeguards of justice. It helps in better implementation law and helps in maintaining the faith of people in the rule of law. The aspects discussed should be considered as the sacred words to abide by. Earlier, these principles were limited only to the courts of law but now their ambit includes statutory, administrative authorities. All these help in deciding the rights and fates of individuals. Their impact on an individual’s life is huge. Thus, certain safeguards are necessary to prevent miscarriage of justice.  

Author: Ananya Singh from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law.

Editor: Priyanshu Grover from Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA, Uttar Pradesh.

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