Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Res Judicata and Special Statutes

The rapid proliferation of Tribunals in India has perhaps masked an allied, and yet facially less controversial feature of adjudication – the growth of special statutes and the creation of jurisdictional courts to resolve disputes arising out of those statutes. Facially, no constitutional vice attaches to such statutes – indeed, it is often the ordinary civil court that is designated as the jurisdictional court under the special statute. This, however, has at times obscured the important point that although the same court hears the dispute, it exercises a different type of jurisdiction. This has interesting consequences on a wide gamut of procedural and substantive stages of litigation – one of which the Supreme Court considered recently, in Md. Nooman v Md. Jabed Alam.

The issue before the Court in Nooman was whether a finding as to title in a suit for eviction operates as res judicata in a subsequent suit for declaration of title. To illustrate the implications of this judgment on the impact of findings under special statutes, it is necessary to give a somewhat elaborate account of the facts. In Nooman, a suit for eviction was instituted in 1973 in the Munsif Court in Arrah by the plaintiff. Her case was that she had acquired the suit property from her mother-in-law through a Registered Sale Deed in 1957, and relied on mutation in the revenue and municipal records to support title. The defendant tenant, her brother-in-law, ran the opposite case, claiming that the property in fact belonged to him, as it had been gifted to him by his mother. The Trial Court framed seven issues, of which Issues 3 and 4 were, respectively: “Has the plaintiff got title to the suit land” and “Is the sale deed valid… Both parties adduced detailed evidence in support of these claims and examined witnesses.

The Trial Court found for the plaintiff on Issues 3 and 4 above, but dismissed the suit because she had not proved the existence of a landlord-tenant relationship between the parties, and since it is a rule of procedure that an eviction suit cannot be converted into a declaratory suit. Appeals were dismissed. In 1979, the plaintiff filed a Title Suit against the defendant tenant, seeking declaration and recovery of possession. The parties ran exactly the same case, and the issues the Trial Court framed were, inter alia, Has the Plaintiff got title over suit property” and “Is there any relationship of landlord-tenant”. The Trial Court once again found for the plaintiff on the title issue, and decreed the suit, finding that she had proved the landlord-tenant relationship. An appeal was filed against that judgment, and the appellate court, after reappraising the evidence, held that the plaintiff had not proved title, and dismissed the suit. The High Court reversed, finding that the judgment of the Rent Court operated as res judicata on the question of title. By the time the Supreme Court considered this question, both parties had died, and been substituted by legal representatives.

The short issue before the Supreme Court was res judicata. As is well known, res judicata is governed by s. 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 [“CPC”], which reads as follows:

11. Res judicata.—No Court shall try any suit or issue in which the matter directly and substantially in issue has been directly and substantially in issue in a former suit between the same parties, or between parties under whom they or any of them claim, litigating under the same title, in a Court competent to try such subsequent suit or the suit in which such issue has been heard and finally decided by such Court [emphasis added].

On the face of it, this provision extends the operation of res judicata if the court that decided the issue was either competent to hear that suit, or would have been to hear the suit in which res judicata is raised. Explanation VIII goes further and provides that an issue heard and finally decided by a court of limited jurisdiction shall operate as res judicata in a subsequent suit.

The Supreme Court affirmed this conclusion, although, surprisingly, it did not refer to the provisions of s. 11 CPC. The contrary argument proceeded on the premise that the Rent Court satisfies itself only that there is prima facie title, for it is not competent to determine title except as incidental to a determination of the rights of the landlord and the tenant. This argument was rejected on the basis of Mr Justice Meredith’s observations in a 1949 decision of the Patna High Court, which are as follows:

The decision in a rent suit is not res judicata on the question of title unless the question of title had to be decided, was expressly raised, and was expressly decided between the parties and in each case it is necessary to examine carefully the decision in the rent suit before any opinion can be formed as to whether it operates as res judicata on the question of title or not. Ordinarily the decision would be res judicata only with regard to the existence of the relationship of landlord and tenant…

It is submitted that the Supreme Court was clearly correct in reaching this conclusion. It is, however, important to resist any temptation to conclude that the test advanced by Mr Justice Meredith is wider than s. 11 CPC r/w Explanation VIII, although that suggestion is not implausible on the plain language of the text. The more precise tests in the test above are best seen not as supplanting or amplifying the statutory formulation, but as offering courts useful indicators of when the statutory test is likely to be satisfied.

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