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Res Judicata

V. Mohana & Nikita Capoor
30 May 2020 12:20 PM GMT
Res Judicata
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The doctrine of res judicata is understood as "a matter adjudged". Founded on the principle that a litigation between parties must attain finality[1], and on the principles of justice, equity and good conscience[2], res judicata dictates that a right or fact established by a competent court in an earlier proceeding ought to be conclusive and binding upon the parties and those in privity with law or in estate[3]. The earlier proceeding need not be a suit even though the later could be a civil suit.[4]Fundamentally, there are three legal maxims that form the underlying basis of this doctrine.

In India, res judicata has been codified in Section 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908[6]. One of the earliest attempts to summarise the essentials for availing the defence of res judicata was made by the Supreme Court in the decision of Raj Lakshmi Dasi v. Banamali Sen[7]. However, the locus classicus was established by the Supreme Court in the decision of Satyadhyan Ghosal v. Deorijin Debi[8], holding that "(w)hen a matter on question of facts and law – has been decided between two parties in one suit or proceeding and the decision is final, either because no appeal was taken to a higher court or because the appeal was dismissed, or no appeal lies, neither party will be allowed in a future suit or proceeding between same parties to canvass the matter again.".

Again, Daryao's case[9] categorised and summarised the salient features of Res Judicata.

The "matter that is directly and substantially in issue" is one that had already been alleged or raised by one party, and pursuant to the admission or denial of the said matter, has been adjudicated upon by a Court in a "former suit". The expression "former suit", is understood to mean a suit which is decided prior in point of time, even in the event that such suit was not instituted prior in time.[10]

Thus, if the "matter in issue" in a given situation, is purely that of fact, then notwithstanding the correctness of the said decision, the parties shall be bound in a subsequent litigation by way of the operation of res judicata. A mixed question of law and fact that had been determined in the earlier proceeding between the same parties may not, for the same reason, be questioned in the subsequent proceeding between the same parties[11]. The caveat here, is that such "matter in issue" ought to be "directly or substantially"[12] in issue in the former suit..

In the case of Nagabhushanammal v. C. Chandikeswaralingam[13], the Supreme Court answered that an earlier suit for possession does not bar a subsequent suit for partition, the cause of action being different in both the suits.

However, where a court has ruled erroneously on a pure question of law, the same does not operate as res judicata in a subsequent proceeding. Alternatively, res judicata cannot be used as a defence to take refuge in a judgment where there has been an erroneous interpretation of a statutory provision[14].

Allegations or issues that "might or ought" to have been raised in the former suit/proceeding shall be deemed to have been a matter directly or substantially in issue. Reliefs sought in respect of such issues when not granted expressly by the Court, are "deemed to have been refused".

While 'direct' res judicata is restricted to a matter actually in issue, the principle of 'constructive' res judicata engrafted in Explanation IV of Section 11 of the Code is an "artificial form of res judicata". It prescribes that a party to a subsequent suit could invoke this principle on the ground that a matter which "might and ought" to have been made a ground of defence or attack in a former suit, shall be deemed to have been a matter "directly and substantially" in issue in such a suit. The Supreme Court in its decision in State of UP v. Nawab Hussain[15], while extending the application of this doctrine to writ proceedings as well[16], opined that the absence of such a preclusion would aggravate the burden of litigation. In the recent decision of Asgar and Others v. Mohan Varma and Others[17], Justice. D.Y. Chandrachud has reiterated the view taken by the Constitution Bench in Direct Recruit Class II Engineering Officers' Association v. State of Maharashtra[18], while observing that even assuming that liberty may have been granted to the party by the Court in a prior proceeding to pursue an appropriate remedy, the same would not bar the application of 'constructive' res judicata in a subsequent proceeding.

As a logical corollary, a relief claimed which is not expressly granted by a court, leads to the issue becoming res judicata in respect of the subsequent proceeding initiated. It is therefore essential that the court considers all the reliefs sought by a party and adjudicates thereupon[19], so as to avoid any ambiguity and multiplicity of litigation on the same cause of action. A person who challenges a decision of an authority in Court and loses, cannot go back to Court challenging the same decision based on another ground, which was available to him at the first instance.

Another key aspect that requires attention is to assess, while applying the rule of res judicata, whether it is between the same parties or their privies or representatives in title. The provision also deals with representative suits and provides that where persons litigate bonafide in respect of either a public right or a private right claimed in common for themselves and others, then all such persons interested in such a right shall be deemed to claim under the persons so litigating. (K.S. Varghese v. St. Peter's & St. Paul's Syrian Orthodox Church[20]).

After the insertion of Explanation VIII, the court which decided the former suit could be either a court of exclusive jurisdiction; or a court of concurrent jurisdiction; or a court of limited jurisdiction.([Sulochana Amma v. Narayanan Nair (supra)]

A matter can be said to have been heard and finally decided notwithstanding that the earlier suit was disposed of (i) ex parte; or (ii) by failure to produce evidence (Order 17 Rule 3); or (iii) by a decree or an award etc.

But where the suit is dismissed on technical grounds, the same would not operate as res judicata between the parties[21]. An ex parte judgment can operate as Res Judicata unless there is a fraud in obtaining the same[22]. Different stages of the same proceedings also attract Res Judicata[23]. However dismissal of a suit under Order 22 Rule 2 CPC at the threshold does not attract bar under section 11 in a subsequent suit with respect to an application filed under Order I Rule 10 CPC. (Pankajbhai Rameshbhai Zalavadiya v. Jethabhai Kalabhai Zalavadiya[24])

Exceptions to the Rule of Res Judicata

In Raju Ramsing Vasave v. Mahesh Deorao Bhivapurkar[25], the Supreme Court laid down three exceptions to the application of res judicata:

(i) When a judgment is passed by a court lacking jurisdiction[26];

(ii) When matter involves a pure question of law.; and

(iii) When judgment has been obtained by committing fraud on the Court.

In Canara Bank v. N.G. Subbaraya Setty[27] it was held, that save and except the three exceptions to the principles of res judicata, i.e., erroneous decision of the court in the earlier suit, error in the decision on account of not giving effect to the statutory provision, and when the issue of law is different from what had been raised in the prior suit, the bar would be attracted in a subsequent proceeding on fulfillment of all other conditions. It is therefore safe to state that the Supreme Court has taken a consistent view on the position that the earlier suit would operate as res judicata only with respect to 'question of facts' and not on issues of 'pure questions of law' when wrongly decided.[28]

In Krishna Hare Gaur v. Vinod Kumar Tyagi[29], it was laid down that in case of a fraud played on the court, the appointment will be a nullity and doctrine of res judicata will not apply. Relying on the decision of Meghmala v. G. Narasimha Reddy[30], the Supreme Court held that the High Court had erred in applying the principles of res judicata in the instant case, while opining that "(w)hen the appointment is made dehors the rules, the same is a nullity. In such an eventuality, the statutory bar like doctrine of res judicata is not attracted."

Similarly in Asharfilal Vs Koili[31], The Supreme Court held that gross negligence may amount to fraud and remanded the matter to the consolidation authorities to frame an issue on the question of fraud/collusion and decide the same.

Res Judicata is a very strong weapon in defence. The Indian Legal System, being particularly vexed with frivolous and duplicate claims, should make use of this doctrine to effectively nip a deluge of superfluous litigation in the bud and save precious judicial time, which is currently scarce. The Court should separate the grain from the chaff and if the plaint discloses a sham cause of action, then, after a preliminary examination of the parties, it should be rejected at the threshold.[32]

This piece only gives an overall view about the provision. The principle has been made applicable in a variety of proceedings like writs, labour proceedings, consolidation proceedings, etc. It applies among co-defendants, co-plaintiffs, etc when they are essential parties to the litigation. It does not apply in matters of Habeas Corpus, and in matters of successive years of taxation.

In fact the issue of Res Judicata can be raised as a preliminary issue in any subsequent proceeding so that the entire trial into the second proceeding need not be undertaken. Heavy costs must be imposed on frivolous and vexatious litigation and this has to be treated as an abuse of process of court when the issue is once decided and attained finality. Therefore, it is safe to say that both public interest and private justice have adequately been taken care of under this doctrine. Technically, no party gets a second bite at the same cherry.

Views Are Personal Only


[1] M. Nagabhushana v. State of Karnataka, (2011) 3 SCC 408, at Paras 12 – 15.

[2] Lal Chand v. Radha Krishan, (1977) 2 SCC 88, at Para 19.

[3] Duchess of Kingston's Case, (1776) 20 St Tr 355.

[4] State of Tamil Nadu v State of Kerala, (2014) 12 SCC 696

[5] (i) Nemo Debet Lis Vaxari Pro Eadem Causa which means that no man should be tormented twice for the same cause, (ii) Interest Republicae Ut Sit Finis Litium meaning that it is in the interest of the State that there should be an end to a litigation and (iii) Res Judicata Pro Veritate Occipitur which means that a judicial decision must be accepted as correct.

[7] Raj Lakshmi Dasi v. Banamali Sen, 1953 SCR 154 at Para 13.

[8] (1960) 3 SCR 590, at Para 7.

[9] Daryao v. State of UP, (1962) 1 SCR 574

[10] Lonankutty v. Thomman, (1976) 3 SCC 528 at Paras 15 and 19.

[11] Union of India v. Reliance Industries Ltd., (2015) 10 SCC 213 at Para 22.

[12] Sheodan Singh v. Daryao Kunwar, (1966) 3 SCR 300, at Paras 8 – 9.

[13] (2016) 4 SCC 434

[14] SCG Contracts (India) (P) Ltd. v. K.S. Chamankar Infrastructure (P) Ltd, (2019) 12 SCC 210

[15] State of U.P. v. Nawab Hussain, (1977) 2 SCC 806, at Para 4.

[16] Shiv Chander More v. Lt. Governor, (2014) 11 SCC 744, at Paras 21 – 24.

[17] Asgar and Ors. v. Mohan Verma and Ors., 2019 SCC OnLine SC 131 at Paras 31 – 38.

[18] (1990) 2 SCC 91

[19] Yashwant Sinha v. CBI, (2020) 2 SCC 338, at Para 85 – 87.

[20] (2017) 15 SCC 333

[21] City Municipal Council Bhalki v. Gurappa, (2016) 2 SCC 200

[22] Saroja v Chinnusamy, (2007) 8 SCC 329

[23] YB Patil v YL Patil, AIR 1977 SC 392

[24] (2017) 9 SCC 700

[25] (2008) 9 SCC 54

[26] Union of India v. Pramod Gupta, (2005) 12 SCC 1

[27] (2018) 16 SCC 228

[28] Satyendra Kumar v. Raj Nath Dubey, (2016) 14 SCC 49

[29] (2015) 11 SCC 355

[30] (2010) 8 SCC 383

[31] (1995) 4 SCC 163

[32] T. Arivandandam v. T.V. Satyapal, (1977) 4 SCC 467

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