India: The Doctrine Of Per Incuriam

Last Updated: 5 August 2016
Article by Arvind Thapliyal

Most Read Contributor in India, September 2016


Per incuriam, literally translated as "through lack of care", refers to a judgment of a court which has been decided without reference to a statutory provision or earlier judgment which would have been relevant.


The significance of a judgment having been decided per incuriam is that it does not then have to be followed as precedent by a lower court. Ordinarily, in the common law, the rationes of a judgment must be followed thereafter by lower courts while hearing similar cases. A lower court is free, however, to depart from an earlier judgment of a superior court where that earlier judgment was decided per incuriam. Also the said doctrine is an exception to article 141 of Constitution of India which embodies the doctrine of precedents as a matter of law.

Sir John Salmond in his 'Treatise on jurisprudence' has aptly stated the circumstances under which a precedent can be treated as 'per incuriam'. It is stated that a precedent is not binding if it was rendered in ignorance of a statute or a rule having the force of statute or delegated legislation.

C.C.K. Alien in 'Law in the Making' (Page No. 246) analyzed the concept of 'per incuriam'. According to him, 'Incuria' means literally 'carelessness' which apparently is considered less uncomplimentary than ignorantia; but in practice 'per incuriam' applies to mean 'per ignorantiam'. It would almost seem that 'ignorantia juris neminem excusat' – except a Court of law, ignorance of what? Ignorance of a statute, or of a rule having statutory effect which would have affected the decision if the court had been aware of it.

The rule applies even though the earlier court knew of the statutes in question but it did not refer to and had not present to its mind, the precise terms of the statute. Similarly a court may know of the existence of a statute and yet not appreciate its relevance to the matter in hand, such a mistake is again such 'incuria' as to vitiate the decision. Even a lower court can impugn a precedent on such grounds.1


The Court of Appeal in Morelle Ltd v Wakeling [1955] 2 QB 379 stated that as a general rule the only cases in which decisions should be held to have been given per incuriam are those of decisions given in ignorance or forgetfulness of some inconsistent statutory provision or of some authority binding on the court concerned: so that in such cases some part of the decision or some step in the reasoning on which it is based is found, on that account, to be demonstrably wrong.

In Lord Godard, C.J. in Huddersfield Police Authority v. Watson (1947) 2 All ER 193 it was observed that: "Where a case or statute had not been brought to the court's attention and the court gave the decision in ignorance or forgetfulness of the existence of the case or statute, it would be a decision rendered in per incuriam."


The Apex court in Siddharam Satlingappa Mhetre v. State of Maharashtra2 refused to follow the decision of co-ordinate benches, which was opposed to the decision of an earlier Constitutional Bench. The Hon'ble Supreme Court explained the concept of "per incuriam" as following:

"139. Now we deem it imperative to examine the issue of per incuriam raised by the learned counsel for the parties. In Young v. Bristol Aeroplane Company Limited (1994) All ER 293 the House of Lords observed that 'Incuria' literally means 'carelessness'. In practice per incuriam appears to mean per ignoratium. English courts have developed this principle in relaxation of the rule of stare decisis. The 'quotable in law' is avoided and ignored if it is rendered, 'in ignoratium of a statute or other binding authority. The same has been accepted, approved and adopted by this court while interpreting Article 141 of the Constitution which embodies the doctrine of precedents as a matter of law.

......... In Halsbury's Laws of England (4th Edn.) Vol. 26: Judgment and Orders: Judicial Decisions as Authorities (pp. 297-98, para 578) per incuriam has been elucidated as under:

"A decision is given per incuriam when the court has acted in ignorance of a previous decision of its own or of a court of coordinate jurisdiction which covered the case before it, in which case it must decide which case to follow (Young v. Bristol Aeroplane Co. Ltd., 1944 KB 718 at 729 : (1944) 2 All ER 293 at 300.

In Huddersfield Police Authority v. Watson, 1947 KB 842 : (1947) 2 All ER 193.); or when it has acted in ignorance of a House of Lords decision, in which case it must follow that decision; or when the decision is given in ignorance of the terms of a statute or rule having statutory force."

>140. Lord Godard, C.J. in Huddersfield Police Authority v. Watson (1947) 2 All ER 193 observed that where a case or statute had not been brought to the court's attention and the court gave the decision in ignorance or forgetfulness of the existence of the case or statute, it would be a decision rendered in per incuriam.

141. This court in Government of A.P. and Another v. B. Satyanarayana Rao (dead) by LRs. and Others (2000) 4 SCC 262 observed as under:

"The rule of per incuriam can be applied where a court omits to consider a binding precedent of the same court or the superior court rendered on the same issue or where a court omits to consider any statute while deciding that issue."

142. In a Constitution Bench judgment of this Court in Union of India v. Raghubir Singh (1989) 2 SCC 754, Chief Justice Pathak observed as under:

"The doctrine of binding precedent has the merit of promoting a certainty and consistency in judicial decisions, and enables an organic development of the law, besides providing assurance to the individual as to the consequence of transactions forming part of his daily affairs. And, therefore, the need for a clear and consistent enunciation of legal principle in the decisions of a court."

143. In Thota Sesharathamma and another v. Thota Manikyamma (Dead) by LRs. and others (1991) 4 SCC 312 a two Judge Bench of this Court held that the three Judge Bench decision in the case of Mst. Karmi v. Amru (1972) 4 SCC 86 was per incuriam and observed as under:

"...It is a short judgment without adverting to any provisions of Section 14 (1) or 14(2) of the Act. The judgment neither makes any mention of any argument raised in this regard nor there is any mention of the earlier decision in Badri Pershad v. Smt. Kanso Devi. The decision in Mst. Karmi cannot be considered as an authority on the ambit and scope of Section 14(1) and (2) of the Act."

144. In R. Thiruvirkolam v. Presiding Officer and Another (1997) 1 SCC 9, two Judge Bench of this Court observed that the question is whether it was bound to accept the decision rendered in Gujarat Steel Tubes Ltd. v. Mazdoor Sabha (1980) 2 SCC 593, which was not in conformity with the decision of a Constitution Bench in P.H. Kalyani v. Air France (1964) 2 SCR 104. J.S. Verma, J. speaking for the court observed as under:

"With great respect, we must say that the abovequoted observations in Gujarat Steel at P. 215 are not in line with the decision in Kalyani which was binding or with D.C. Roy to which the learned Judge, Krishna Iyer, J. was a party. It also does not match with the underlying juristic principle discussed in Wade. For the reasons, we are bound to follow the Constitution Bench decision in Kalyani, which is the binding authority on the point."

145. In Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd. v. Mumbai Shramik Sangra and others (2001) 4 SCC 448 a Constitution Bench of this Court ruled that a decision of a Constitution Bench of this Court binds a Bench of two learned Judges of this Court and that judicial discipline obliges them to follow it, regardless of their doubts about its correctness.

146. A Constitution Bench of this Court in Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community v. State of Maharashtra (2005) 2 SCC 673 has observed that the law laid down by this Court in a decision delivered by a Bench of larger strength is binding on any subsequent Bench of lesser or coequal strength.

147. A three-Judge Bench of this court in Official Liquidator v. Dayanand and Others (2008) 10 SCC 1 again reiterated the clear position of law that by virtue of Article 141 of the Constitution, the judgment of the Constitution Bench in State of Karnataka and Others v. Umadevi and Others (2006) 4 SCC 1 is binding on all courts including this court till the same is overruled by a larger Bench. The ratio of the Constitution Bench has to be followed by Benches of lesser strength. In para 90, the court observed as under:-

"We are distressed to note that despite several pronouncements on the subject, there is substantial increase in the number of cases involving violation of the basics of judicial discipline. The learned Single Judges and Benches of the High Courts refuse to follow and accept the verdict and law laid down by coordinate and even larger Benches by citing minor difference in the facts as the ground for doing so. Therefore, it has become necessary to reiterate that disrespect to the constitutional ethos and breach of discipline have grave impact on the credibility of judicial institution and encourages chance litigation. It must be remembered that predictability and certainty is an important hallmark of judicial jurisprudence developed in this country in the last six decades and increase in the frequency of conflicting judgments of the superior judiciary will do incalculable harm to the system inasmuch as the courts at the grass roots will not be able to decide as to which of the judgments lay down the correct law and which one should be followed."

148. In Subhash Chandra and Another v. Delhi Subordinate Services Selection Board and Others (2009) 15 SCC 458, this court again reiterated the settled legal position that Benches of lesser strength are bound by the judgments of the Constitution Bench and any Bench of smaller strength taking contrary view is per incuriam. The court in para 110 observed as under:-

"Should we consider S. Pushpa v. Sivachanmugavelu (2005) 3 SCC 1 to be an obiter following the said decision is the question which arises herein. We think we should. The decisions referred to hereinbefore clearly suggest that we are bound by a Constitution Bench decision. We have referred to two Constitution Bench decisions, namely, Marri Chandra Shekhar Rao v. Seth G.S. Medical College (1990) 3 SCC 139 and E.V. Chinnaiah v. State of A.P. (2005) 1 SCC 394. Marri Chandra Shekhar Rao (supra) had been followed by this Court in a large number of decisions including the three-Judge Bench decisions. S. Pushpa (supra) therefore, could not have ignored either Marri Chandra Shekhar Rao (supra) or other decisions following the same only on the basis of an administrative circular issued or otherwise and more so when the constitutional scheme as contained in clause (1) of Articles 341 and 342 of the Constitution of India putting the State and Union Territory in the same bracket. Following Official Liquidator v. Dayanand and Others (2008) 10 SCC 1 therefore, we are of the opinion that the dicta in S. Pushpa (supra) is an obiter and does not lay down any binding ratio."

149. The analysis of English and Indian Law clearly leads to the irresistible conclusion that not only the judgment of a larger strength is binding on a judgment of smaller strength but the judgment of a co-equal strength is also binding on a Bench of judges of co-equal strength. In the instant case, judgments mentioned in paragraphs 135 and 136 are by two or three judges of this court. These judgments have clearly ignored a Constitution Bench judgment of this court in Sibbia's case (supra) which has comprehensively dealt with all the facets of anticipatory bail enumerated under section 438 of Cr.P.C. Consequently, judgments mentioned in paragraphs 135 and 136 of this judgment are per incuriam."

Therefore, it can be concluded that when a lower court ignores the decision of a higher court, the decision passed by such court can be discarded as being per incurium of the decision of the higher court.



2 Criminal Appeal No. 2271 of 2010 (Arising out of SLP (Crl.) No. 7615 of 2009)

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