Principle Of Res Judicata May Not Strictly Apply When Public Interest At Stake: Supreme Court

Update: 2024-06-12 11:29 GMT
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While ruling in favor of the Delhi government and its entities in a batch of land acquisition cases, the Supreme Court recently observed that the principle of res judicata may not strictly apply in situations where public interest is at stake.The bench of Justices Surya Kant, Dipankar Datta and Ujjal Bhuyan said that in such cases, "a more flexible approach ought to be adopted by...

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While ruling in favor of the Delhi government and its entities in a batch of land acquisition cases, the Supreme Court recently observed that the principle of res judicata may not strictly apply in situations where public interest is at stake.

The bench of Justices Surya Kant, Dipankar Datta and Ujjal Bhuyan said that in such cases, "a more flexible approach ought to be adopted by courts, recognizing that certain matters transcend individual disputes and have far-reaching public interest implications."

The case pertained to land acquisition process initiated by Delhi government under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 for planned development of Delhi. Between 1957-2006, various notifications were issued for acquiring lands and awards passed fixing compensation. In some cases, compensation amounts were deposited in treasury, as landowners did not come forward. In some others, possession could not be taken by the government entities, as landowners challenged the proceedings and obtained stay.

Subsequently, the 1894 Act was replaced by the 2013 Act, which brought various reforms. Section 24 of the new Act provided that land acquisition proceedings initiated under the earlier regime would be deemed to have lapsed in certain cases, including when compensation had not been paid or possession had not been taken.

Section 24 was interpreted in various Supreme Court decisions, such as Pune Municipal Corporation v. Harak Chand Mistrimal Solanki. Based on Pune Municipal Corporation (and other similar decisions), the Delhi High Court allowed writ petitions of certain affected landowners, including respondent-M/s BSK Realtors, and declared as lapsed land acquisition proceedings pertaining to them.

The High Court judgments were carried in appeal before the Supreme Court by Delhi government authorities (like DMRC, DDA, etc.). This "first round" of litigation resulted in different outcomes, including dismissal of some civil appeals.

Four years later, in 2020, the decision in Pune Municipal Corporation was overturned by the Constitution Bench decision in Indore Development Authority v. Manoharlal, where it was held that acquisition proceedings could be declared as lapsed only when both conditions ie, non-payment of compensation to the landowners and failure of the State to take physical possession of the acquired lands, were met.

As a consequence of this decision, Delhi government sought reconsideration of the Delhi High Court decisions, which declared acquisition proceedings as lapsed based on Pune Municipal Corporation. The SLPs/appeals/M.A.s moved at this stage constituted the "second round" of litigation, and impleaded authorities like DDA, DMRC, etc. (petitioners in the first round) as co-respondents.

Among the various issues raised regarding maintainability of the SLPs/appeals in the second round, one pertained to the principle of res judicata. The appellant-authorities' case was that the decision in Manoharlal applied retrospectively from 01.01.2014, and thus, the Supreme Court orders in the first round could not operate as res judicata if the law had been altered. They pled that the decisions in the first round were not binding on them, as they were only formally impleaded at the time and not adequately heard.

"The mere fact that a petitioner who filed the SLP in the second round was a party to the first round as a respondent would not warrant the application of the doctrine of res judicata", the authorities claimed.

The landowners' case, on the other hand, was that the principle of res judicata applied to the cases. Highlighting that the acquiring authorities (GNCTD, etc.), and the beneficiary (DDA, etc.) shared a common interest in the acquisition of land for public purpose, they submitted that dismissal of a civil appeal preferred by one authority in the first round, acted as res judicata against the other authority in subsequent round of litigation.

"When either of the parties litigates, one is deemed to litigate on behalf of all interested parties", the landowners averred.

After hearing the parties and going through the views taken in Munni Bibi (since deceased) and Another v. Tirloki Nath and OthersState of Gujarat and Others v. M.P. Shah Charitable Trust and Others and Mathura Prasad Bajoo Jaiswal and Others v. Dossibai N.B. Jeejeebhoy, the court observed that the decision in the first round of litigation could not operate as res judicata to bar the second round.

"Res judicata, as a technical legal principle, operates to prevent the same parties from relitigating the same issues that have already been conclusively determined by a court...the previous decision of this Court in the first round would not operate as res judicata to bar a decision on the lead matter and the other appeals; more so, because this rule may not apply hard and fast in situations where larger public interest is at stake."

It further noted that the GNCTD and the DDA (co-respondents before the High Court) did not have conflicting interests - neither before the High Court nor before the Supreme Court.

"Inter se them, neither was there any disputed issue, nor could have the High Court possibly adjudicated on any such issue. Before this Court too, in the first round, there was no issue on which GNCTD and DDA were at loggerheads. In the light of this, in accordance with the aforementioned legal principle, the applicability of res judicata is negated."

Taking into account public interest concerns, most appeals filed by the Delhi government were allowed and directions passed. Separate orders were passed in other cases.

Case Title: Government of NCT of Delhi & Anr. v. M/s BSK Realtors LLP & Anr. (and connected matters)

Citation : 2024 LiveLaw (SC) 420

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