When Can Writ Courts Interfere In Contract Matters? SC Explains [Read Judgment]
In a judgment delivered in June, the Supreme Court explained the scope of powers of High Courts under Article 226 of the Constitution of India to interfere in contractual matters.
The bench comprising Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Surya Kant, also held that, in all cases challenging the decision of the tendering authority, all the eligible tenderers need not be made parties. (The Silppi Constructions Contractors vs. Union of India). The bench disagreed with such an observation of the High Court of Kerala and said:
We do not think such a broad proposition could be laid down as an inflexible rule of law. Supposing the tender documents are not sold/delivered to a party wanting to submit a tender, in such a case the other tenderers would not be necessary parties. In the present case the petitioner was only challenging the rejection of its technical bid. At this stage the other tenderers were not necessary parties. The position may be otherwise if a tenderer challenges a bid awarded to another or challenges the rejection of his bid at a later stage. In our view the writ petition was maintainable even in the absence of other tenderers because till that stage there was no successful tenderer. Who are the necessary parties will depend upon the facts of each case.
Writ Jurisdiction and Contractual Matters
The bench, also, scanned through various earlier judgments in this matter, and observed that there is a need to exercise restraint and caution while interfering in matters of contract involving the state instrumentalities.
The essence of the law laid down in the judgments referred to above is the exercise of restraint and caution; the need for overwhelming public interest to justify judicial intervention in matters of contract involving the state instrumentalities; the courts should give way to the opinion of the experts unless the decision is totally arbitrary or unreasonable; the court does not sit like a court of appeal over the appropriate authority; the court must realise that the authority floating the tender is the best judge of its requirements and, therefore, the court's interference should be minimal. The authority which floats the contract or tender, and has authored the tender documents is the best judge as to how the documents have to be interpreted. If two interpretations are possible then the interpretation of the author must be accepted. The courts will only interfere to prevent arbitrariness, irrationality, bias, malafides or perversity.
The Court further observed:
This Court being the guardian of fundamental rights is duty bound to interfere when there is arbitrariness, irrationality, malafides and bias. However, this Court in all the aforesaid decisions has cautioned time and again that courts should exercise a lot of restraint while exercising their powers of judicial review in contractual or commercial matters. This Court is normally loathe to interfere in contractual matters unless a clear-cut case of arbitrariness or malafides or bias or irrationality is made out. One must remember that today many public sector undertakings compete with the private industry. The contracts entered into between private parties are not subject to scrutiny under writ jurisdiction. No doubt, the bodies which are State within the meaning of Article 12 of the Constitution are bound to act fairly and are amenable to the writ jurisdiction of superior courts but this discretionary power must be exercised with a great deal of restraint and caution. The Courts must realise their limitations and the havoc which needless interference in commercial matters can cause. In contracts involving technical issues the courts should be even more reluctant because most of us in judges' robes do not have the necessary expertise to adjudicate upon technical issues beyond our domain. As laid down in the judgments cited above the courts should not use a magnifying glass while scanning the tenders and make every small mistake appear like a big blunder. In fact, the courts must give "fair play in the joints" to the government and public sector undertakings in matters of contract. Courts must also not interfere where such interference will cause unnecessary loss to the public exchequer.
Supreme Court Judgments
- Superior courts should not interfere in matters of tenders unless substantial public interest was involved or the transaction was mala fide. (Raunaq International Ltd. vs. I.V.R. Construction Ltd.)
- There should be overwhelming public interest to justify judicial intervention in contracts involving the State and its instrumentalities. It was held that Courts must proceed with great caution while exercising their discretionary powers and should exercise these powers only in furtherance of public interest and not merely on making out a legal point (Air India Limited vs. Cochin International Airport Ltd.)
- While exercising power of judicial review in respect of contracts, the Court should concern itself primarily with the question, whether there has been any infirmity in the decision-making process. By way of judicial review, Court cannot examine details of terms of contract which have been entered into by public bodies or State. (Master Marine Services (P) Ltd. vs. Metcalfe & Hodgkinson (P) Ltd.)
- It is not always necessary that a contract be awarded to the lowest tenderer and it must be kept in mind that the employer is the best judge therefor; the same ordinarily being within its domain. Therefore, the court's interference in such matters should be minimal. The High Court's jurisdiction in such matters being limited, the Court should normally exercise judicial restraint unless illegality or arbitrariness on the part of the employer is apparent on the face of the record. (B.S.N. Joshi & Sons Ltd. vs. Nair Coal Services Ltd.)
- Judicial review of administrative action is intended to prevent arbitrariness, irrationality, unreasonableness, bias and mala fides. Its purpose is to check whether choice or decision is made "lawfully" and not to check whether choice or decision is "sound". When the power of judicial review is invoked in matters relating to tenders or award of contracts, certain special features should be borne in mind. A contract is a commercial transaction. Evaluating tenders and awarding contracts are essentially commercial functions. Principles of equity and natural justice stay at a distance. If the decision relating to award of contract is bona fide and is in public interest, courts will not, in exercise of power of judicial review, interfere even if a procedural aberration or error in assessment or prejudice to a tenderer, is made out. The power of judicial review will not be permitted to be invoked to protect private interest at the cost of public interest, or to decide contractual disputes. The tenderer or contractor with a grievance can always seek damages in a civil court. Attempts by unsuccessful tenderers with imaginary grievances, wounded pride and business rivalry, to make mountains out of molehills of some technical/procedural violation or some prejudice to self, and persuade courts to interfere by exercising power of judicial review, should be resisted. Such interferences, either interim or final, may hold up public works for years, or delay relief and succour to thousands and millions and may increase the project cost manifold……. (Jagdish Mandal vs. State of Orissa)
- A mere disagreement with the decision-making process or the decision of the administrative authority is no reason for a constitutional Court to interfere. The threshold of mala fides, intention to favour someone or arbitrariness, irrationality or perversity must be met before the constitutional Court interferes with the decision-making process or the decision. The owner or the employer of a project, having authored the tender documents, is the best person to understand and appreciate its requirements and interpret its documents. It is possible that the owner or employer of a project may give an interpretation to the tender documents that is not acceptable to the constitutional Courts but that by itself is not a reason for interfering with the interpretation given. (Afcons Infrastructure Ltd. vs. Nagpur Metro Rail Corporation Ltd.
- The authority concerned is in the best position to find out the best person or the best quotation depending on the work to be entrusted under the contract. The Court cannot compel the authority to choose such undeserving person/company to carry out the work. Poor quality of work or goods can lead to tremendous public hardship and substantial financial outlay either in correcting mistakes or in rectifying defects or even at times in re-doing the entire work. (Municipal Corporation, Ujjain and Another vs. BVG India Ltd. )
- A writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution of India was maintainable only in view of government and public sector enterprises venturing into economic activities. This Court observed that there are various checks and balances to ensure fairness in procedure. It was observed that the window has been opened too wide as every small or big tender is challenged as a matter of routine which results in government and public sectors suffering when unnecessary, close scrutiny of minute details is done. (Caretel Infotech Limited vs. Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited )