File Copyright Online - File mutual Divorce in Delhi - Online Legal Advice - Lawyers in India

Wednesbury Principle

The independent Judiciary in India is the third limb of the Government which answers to the call for a guardian of rights. The main role of the Judiciary since its inception was application of the law of the land to the facts at hand and to provide justice to the parties who sought the jurisdiction of the court. However, with time, the judicial status started evolving and taking up other roles like interpretation of law, judicial review and judicial activism. Judicial review happens to be a weapon in the hands of the Judiciary which entails them to put some checks and balances on the functioning of the legislature and executive even though they are separate limbs.

Judicial review of administrative actions including various discretionary actions, allows the scrutiny and possible invalidation of a decision of any public authority brought to the court by the parties concerned. It is however pertinent to note here that, the trend of judicial decisions, renders this power of judicial review of the court to not be that of an appellate authority in association of an administrative decision. This means that the court refrains from reviewing the merits of the decision preserving the discretion od the administration. Rather, it is only limited to the three-fold classification of grounds namely:

procedural impropriety behind reaching the executive decision, illegality, and irrationality of the same, as was held in the case of Council of Civil Services Unions v. Minister for the Civil Services (1). Arbitrariness and whether mala fides is the actuation behind the decision making are also some widely used principles resorted to in order to adjudicate an administrative action in question.

Irrationality as a ground, through years of progressive jurisprudence, can be equated with the principles of Wednesbury unreasonableness while adjudicating the legality of an administrative decision.

What Is Wednesbury Principle?

Wednesbury principle is also known as the principle of reasonableness. The actions of administrative authorities can be challenged based on reasonableness.

The Wednesbury principle is a common law doctrine that can trace its origin back to the case of Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd. v Wednesbury Corporation (2) before the United Kingdom, Court of Appeal. The contentions of the petitioners majorly dealt with limits to the scope within which the defendants (a local authority) could impose conditions to be followed and how the decision of the defendant was unacceptable and is liable to be quashed.

The court upheld the judicial position with respect to judicial review and observed that the court cannot overturn a decision merely on the ground that the court disagrees with the same. The Court would not go into the correctness of the choice made by the administrator open to him and the Court would not substitute its decision to that of the administrator. In relation to this scope of judicial review, a test was laid down by the court, fulfillment of which enables the judiciary to intervene with the decisions of the administration which is now named as 'Wednesbury test'.

The court laid down various principles or points of reference while dealing with such cases in order to ascertain the grounds to intervene in the decision making of the administration. They are:
  1. Whether they have taken into account matters which ought not to be taken into account; or
  2. Neglected to take into account matters which ought to be taken into account; or
  3. Despite acting within the 4 corners of the matter at hand, the conclusion they came at was so unreasonable that no reasonable authority could ever have come to it.
It is when the facts qualify into any of the above-mentioned tests, the court can interfere with the decision. The power of court here would not be that of an appellate authority to override the decision but to solely look into the contravention of any law while reaching the decision if any. The principle of unreasonable action beyond the actions of a reasonable man is the principle of Wednesbury unreasonableness.

For example, a ration distribution authority comes up with criteria that only people with black hair will receive their rations, It would be considered highly outrageous and unreasonable. Such an order would be struck down using the Wednesbury principles.

What Is Wednesbury Unreasonableness?

Reasonableness as a concept is subjective in nature owing to different minds having different views. Oxford dictionary defines reasonableness as 'the fact of being fair, practical and sensible. It is again subjective as what must be fair to a bench of judges might not correspond with the general crowd. Hence it becomes a matter which is to be interpreted based on rationale illustrated by the database of years of decided cases laying down various interpretations for the same. Reasonableness in case of exercise of a statutory discretion can be construed as the principle stating that the discretion cannot be exercised in a manner which can be held to be unlawful. Unreasonableness on the other hand would seem to exist where the authority exercising the discretion has taken a decision which is devoid of any plausible justification and any authority. It can also be inferred when it is so unreasonable that it might almost be construed as to be done in bad faith.

In the case of Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd. v Wednesbury Corporation, it was held that if the Decision on a competent matter is so unreasonable that no reasonable authority could ever come to it, then the courts can interfere. It is not based on what the court considers unreasonable. Rather, it is a measured as a decision that a reasonable man wouldn't come to. It has also been expressed that the court does not have the duty to determine what is reasonable and what is not. Rather, the court has to see whether, acting within the four corners of the jurisdiction available to the authority, what would be the prima facie condition that no reasonable authority would seek to impose.

This principle is stricter than the existing test of unreasonableness-based on merely showing that a particular decision was unreasonable-as this test provides a parameter of a reasonable man's thought process for comparison.

The Doctrine And The Constitution

Under the ambit of judicial activism, Article 14 of the Constitution of India was interpreted in the light of arbitrariness. The courts in multiple cases have employed the principle of arbitrariness to invalidate any administrative action by declaring it violative of the fundamental right to equality. It was held in the case of Om Kumar v. Union of India (3) that, for judging the arbitrariness of the order, the test of unreasonableness may be applied. The action of the State, thus, must be judged with extreme care and circumspection. This unreasonableness can be derived from the principle of Wednesbury unreasonableness.

In Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (4), it was held that, the order to impound a passport could be declared invalid under article 19(1)(a) and (g) if it was so drastic in nature as to impose unreasonable restrictions on the individual's freedom covered by these two clauses. This decision took view of the concept of unreasonableness, while observing that the scope of unreasonableness under article 19 was much wider than the principle of Wednesbury unreasonableness.

Proportionality Test
With the growth of the dynamic legal system, and the relation it builds with the status of a welfare state that India has assumed, a need was felt to develop this subjective and somewhat wide and vague concept into stricter and more comprehensible standard of reasonability. This led to the incorporation of the principles of proportionality in the law of the land.

The test of proportionality lays down that it is not proportional where in the discretionary exercise of powers there is no reasonable relation between the objective which is sought to be achieved and the means used to that end. This test is majorly result specific while comparing its intensity with that of the means. Standing to be stricter and more thorough, it has evolved from the Wednesbury principle itself.

The Indian Supreme Court consciously considered the application of the concept of proportionality for the first time in the case of Union of India Vs. G. Ganayutham (5). In that case the Supreme Court after extensively reviewing the law relating to Wednesbury unreasonableness and proportionality prevailing in England held that the 'wednesbury' unreasonableness will be the guiding principle in India, so long as fundamental rights are not involved.

In K. S. Puttaswamy Vs. Union of India, (6) the test of proportionality was upheld by the Hon'ble Supreme Court. It was held that in the case of proportionality of a measure must be determined while looking at the restrictions being imposed by the State on the fundamental rights of citizens. It is not just the legal and physical restrictions that must be looked at, but also the fear that these sorts of restrictions engender in the minds of the populace, while looking at the proportionality of measures.

Most recently, in Anuradha Bhasin Vs. Union of India, (7) wherein, the validity of internet shutdown and movement restrictions in J&K was challenged in the Hon'ble Supreme Court. It was held - To summarize the requirements of the doctrine of proportionality which must be followed by the authorities before passing any order intending on restricting fundamental rights of individuals.

To recapitulate, Lord Green developed the wednesbury principle in the famous case of Associated Provincial Picture House v. Wednusbury Corporation . The action of the administrative authorities would be declared unconstitutional if it meets the following circumstances:
  1. If the action has no backing of the law;
  2. There is no evidence to back the action of the authority;
  3. The action is based on irrelevant and extraneous consideration;
  4. The action is so outrageous and is so unreasonable that no reasonable person in their wildest of dreams would reach that particular conclusion.

The Wednesbury principle of unreasonableness is an old concept. Regardless of its longevity however, the importance of this principle cannot be discarded. This principle has been in usage through years of jurisprudence and has been the pivot for the development of the principle of proportionality as well

It is hence safe to conclude that, while the Wednesbury test will ensure that courts do not improperly infringe upon the domain of the executive, the very introduction of proportionality test will initiate a change in judicial attitude and reservations towards a necessarily more rigorous inquiry being adopted as part of a context-specific variable intensity review.

End Notes:
  1. [1984] 3 All ER 935; [1985] AC 374
  2. [1948] I KB 223
  3. AIR 2000 SC 3689
  4. 1978 AIR 597, 1978 SCR (2) 621
  5. (2006) 65 (1) C.L.J.174, p. 175
  6. 2017 (10) SCC 1
  7. 2019 SCC Online SC 1725

Law Article in India

Ask A Lawyers

You May Like

Legal Question & Answers

Lawyers in India - Search By City

Copyright Filing
Online Copyright Registration


How To File For Mutual Divorce In Delhi


How To File For Mutual Divorce In Delhi Mutual Consent Divorce is the Simplest Way to Obtain a D...

Increased Age For Girls Marriage


It is hoped that the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which intends to inc...

Facade of Social Media


One may very easily get absorbed in the lives of others as one scrolls through a Facebook news ...

Section 482 CrPc - Quashing Of FIR: Guid...


The Inherent power under Section 482 in The Code Of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (37th Chapter of t...

The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in India: A...


The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is a concept that proposes the unification of personal laws across...

Role Of Artificial Intelligence In Legal...


Artificial intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing various sectors of the economy, and the legal i...

Lawyers Registration
Lawyers Membership - Get Clients Online

File caveat In Supreme Court Instantly