5 Jan 2023 4:37 AM GMT
This article deals with the following issues in relation to coordinate bench judgments: law in relation to the conflicting judgments passed by the coordinate benches;recourse available to the latter coordinate bench; andconundrum which a lower court faces when conflicting judgments of co-equal benches are relied upon by the litigants before a lower court. What Is...
This article deals with the following issues in relation to coordinate bench judgments:
What Is A Coordinate Or Co-Equal Bench?
The term ‘coordinate bench’ or ‘co-equal bench’ is used with respect to two or more benches of a court presided by the same number of judges. Simply put, in any High Court, all the benches having same number of judges will be referred to as being coordinate or co-equal bench.
Conflicting Judgments By Coordinate Benches
As of May 2022, over 4.7 crore cases are pending at various levels in India of which almost 70000 cases are pending before the Supreme Court. This naturally leads to some instances where conflicting judgments are passed by the coordinate benches of the Supreme Court and the High Court. The reason for this is that the latter bench had not been made aware of an earlier judgment. However, there are also instances where the latter court intentionally disagrees with the judgment of the earlier court and passes a contrary decision.
In situations where a decision/judgment has been passed in ignorance of an earlier decision of coordinate bench, the judgment rendered earlier would continue to hold fort and the subsequent judgments would become per incuriam. In so far as the second instance is concerned, the Supreme Court, in plethora of judgments, has held that a coordinate bench or co-equal bench cannot give a decision contrary to or inconsistent with the law laid down by the coordinate bench. The rationale for such principle is that precedent law must be followed by all and deviation from it should only be on a procedure known to law. Further, judicial discipline demands that judicial propriety and judicial decorum must be followed in all circumstances. Therefore, coordinate bench should not embark upon the exercise of inquiring about the correctness of the law laid down by another coordinate bench.
The succeeding paragraphs will analyse two different scenarios which can arise with respect to judgments rendered by coordinate benches.
Conflicting Judgments Of Coordinate Benches Before A Coordinate Bench Of The Same Court
As mentioned above, the latter coordinate bench cannot give a decision contrary to or inconsistent with the law laid down by the coordinate bench. However, where a Court is faced with conflicting judgments of coordinate benches, the recourse to be taken in such a situation is also provided by the Supreme Court.
The constitution bench of the Supreme Court, as far back in 1961, in the case of Jaisri Sahu v. Rajdewan Dubey and Others (1962) 2 SCR 558, dealing with a similar issue has held:
“The better course would be for the Bench hearing the case to refer the matter to a Full Bench in view of the conflicting authorities without taking upon itself to decide whether it should follow the one Bench decision or the other. We have no doubt that when such situations arise, the Bench hearing the case would refer the matter for the decision of a Full Court.”
However, in not following the settled law, Courts create a disharmony and disturb the principle of stare decisis.
it has been noticed that despite law settled by the Supreme Court, in some of the cases, courts have taken a different approach. Instances can be found where the Courts generally consider the most recent judgment on the point to be correctly laying the law. However, such an approach is an erroneous approach in light of the Supreme Court judgment cited above.
Conflicting Judgments Of Coordinate Bench Before A Lower Court
A second situation can arise when conflicting judgments of coordinate benches of a higher court are cited before a lower court. In that case, it becomes difficult for a lower court to decide which decision correctly lays down the law. For example, (i) conflicting decisions of Supreme Court coordinate benches are presented before a High Court, (ii) conflicting decisions of High Court division bench coordinate benches are presented before single bench of the same High Court, and (iii) conflicting judgments of High Court presented before its District Court.
In the third category of the above cited examples, the Author did not come across any judgments and therefore will present his own views in the latter part of this article.
However, the Supreme Court in a judgment delivered in 2001 has observed that even when the High Court was faced with diametrically opposite judgments the Supreme Court, it was expected to decide the case on merit according to its own interpretation of the said judgments.
This decision was followed as a precedent by the Delhi High Court in Simplex Concrete Piles in which various other judgments of High Courts were cited which have held that in case of conflict between the judgment of the Supreme Court coordinate benches, the High Court should follow the judgment which appears to them to state the law accurately and elaborately and particularly so when the later decision of the Supreme Court did not notice the earlier decision.
Further, even for the trail courts, the matter requires ponderance. It is a settled law that a trial court is bound by the decision of its parent High Court. Therefore, if faced with a situation where two judgments of the same High Court by co-equal bench are cited, the trial court should follow the judgment as laid down by the Supreme Court and follow the earlier judgment as pronouncing the correct law and should refrain from giving its own interpretation to the correctness of the law laid down by its parent High Court.
As mentioned earlier, in Hyder Consulting it was observed that if a later judgment is passed in ignorance of earlier decision, it becomes per incuriam, meaning that it was passed in ignorance of the law laid down by the court.
Though the decision in Hyder Consulting was rendered in 2014 (much later than Indian Petrochemicals which was rendered in 2001), it was decided by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court whereas Indian Petrochemicals was decided by the division bench of two judges.
The issue in following the judgment of Indian Petrochemicals is that it would result in the High Courts choosing one of the two or many conflicting judgments of the Supreme Court based on its own interpretation of the judgments.
This would in turn result in the High Court certifying the correctness of the conflicting judgments of the Supreme Court. The High Court is expected to do what is forbidden even for the coordinate bench of the Supreme Court – that is – to decide which judgment to follow. Therefore, the decision in Indian Petrochemicals, in the opinion of the author, is contrary to the decision in Jaisri Sahu which was a constitution bench decision and was itself binding on the two-judge bench of Indian Petrochemical.
However, the problem lies in the fact that a coordinate bench can easily refer a matter to a full bench in light of Jaisri Sahu judgment, whereas it is not possible for a High Court to refer a judgment to the full bench of the Supreme Court.
It is here we can take guidance from the law on per incuriam. As held by the Supreme Court in Hyder Consulting and Indian Oil Corporation Limited v. Municipal Corporation and Another (1995) 4 SCC 96, the earliest decision on a point of law would continue to be a good law, especially when the latter decisions have not considered the earlier judgment – because had they considered, they could not have differed from the earlier decision, and it would have to be referred to a full bench.
That not being the case, one way for the High Court seems to be to follow this rule and consider the earliest decision on the issue and not the latest decision.
The author is an Advocate , views are personal.
 Hyder Consulting (UK) Ltd. v. State of Orissa (2015) 2 SCC 189
 Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Limited v. Shramik Sena (2001) 7 SCC 469
 Simplex Concrete Piles (India) Limited v. Union of India 2010 (115) DRJ 616
 Amar Singh Yadav v. Shanti Devi and Others AIR 1987 Pat 191
Govindnaik G. Kalaghatigi v. West Patent Press Company Ltd. AIR 1980 Kar 92
Indo Swiss Time Ltd. v. Umrao AIR 1891 P&H 213
Kulbhushan Kumar and Co. v. State of Punjab AIR 1984 P&H 55
Ganga Saran v. Civil Judge, Hapur Ghaziabad and others AIR 1991 All 114
Virender Kumar @ Bittoo v. State 59 (1995) DLT 341