The concept of natural justice holds special importance in our judicial system from ancient times. It represents fairness, equality and reasonability in every administrative action that affects the right of an individual. One of the core principles of natural justice is that every party to a suit gets an adequate opportunity of fair hearing to present his case and the judgement shall only be pronounced after that. The main objective of this principle in litigation is to meet the ends of justice. This principle is popularly known as the doctrine of “Audi Alteram Partem“.
In this article, we will explore the meaning of Audi Alteram Partem and the essential elements of Audi Alteram Partem. Further, we will also look into certain exceptions to the doctrine.
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Meaning of Audi Alteram Partem
The literal meaning of Audi Alteram Partem is to “hear the other side”. In other words, it denotes that every party shall get an opportunity of hearing and no one shall go unheard in a case. The maxim Audi Alteram Partem is derived from the Latin phrase “audiatur et altera pars” which means that every party shall be heard. This maxim is one of the fundamental rules of administrative law that ensures justice to both parties. As per this maxim, every party shall get an opportunity to plead and assert evidence to support his case.
Essential Elements of Audi Alteram Partem
There are some essential ingredients of this maxim which are as follows –
Issuance of Notice
The term ‘notice’ has been derived from the Latin word ‘notitia’ which means ‘being known’ to a thing. Notice is the primary stage of a trial and it is served to the opposite party to make him aware of the facts and the case before the trial itself. This notice helps the other party to prepare his defence in the light of the stated facts. It is an integral element of the entire judicial proceedings and if any order is passed without the issuance of the notice, then the order will void ab initio.
Further, If a statute prescribes the requirement of serving the notice, then the entire suit or case will lapse in case of failure. As per Article 22 of the Constitution of India, a detenu must be served with the ground of detention. If this notice is not served or the grounds are vague, then the order of detention can be quashed by the court.
A notice shall necessarily contain the following things –
- The notice shall clearly specify the time and place of the hearing.
- The jurisdiction or the legal authority under which a hearing is scheduled.
- A compilation or statement of charges and the remedy resorted by the party.
It is important to note that if the notice doesn’t include all the material terms, then it will lose its legal essence or validity. In the landmark case of Keshav Mills Co. Ltd. v. Union of India, it was stated by our hon’ble court that the notice shall be clear, specific and unambiguous. If it contains some confusing or ambiguous terms, it will not be deemed a proper notice in the eyes of law.
Right of Just and fair Hearing
The second most ingredient of this maxim is the right to a fair hearing. As per this element, every party shall be given an opportunity to present his side of the case. If any decision is taken in contravention of this element, then it will be invalid. The concept of fair hearing also includes that the authorities shall not make “undue haste” while making decisions.
In the landmark case of Harbans Lal v Commissioner, it was held by the hon’ble court that getting a reasonable opportunity of being heard is an indispensable element of a fair trial. Further, the mode of hearing can be oral or written.
Right to Produce Evidence
Evidence is considered as the backbone of the entire trial and the judgement is decided on the basis of them. As per the maxim of Audi Alteram Partem, every party shall have the right to present the evidence before the court to support his case.
In the case of Stafford v Minister of Health, it was held that no evidence shall be collected when the other party is not present in the court. The collection of ex-parte evidence violates the principle of a fair trial. However, if such evidence is recorded, then it shall be put before the other party as soon as possible.
The Right To Cross-examination
As per this right, every person has the right to contest or object to the evidence presented by the other party. The process of cross-examination is a very important step to establishing the truth. However, in certain cases, this rule may be relaxed on grounds of impracticability or necessity.
In the case of Town Area Committee V. Jagdish Prasad, the trial court passed the order only after the submission of the charge sheet and evidence from the appellant side. The Hon’ble Supreme court struck down the order stating that a fair trial includes an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses and the evidence.
The right to Legal Representation
Every person is not able to present his case assertively. Thus, he needs some assistance from a specialised legal attorney to present his case. The Indian Constitution also provides that every person has a right to get legal assistance.
In the Case of J.J Mody v State of Bombay, the hon’ble supreme court stated that the ‘fair procedure’ enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution also includes the right to receive free legal service to a person who can’t afford it. Furthermore, In Khatri V. State of Bihar, it was further clarified that the State is constitutionally obligated to provide free legal aid to the poor not only at the stage of trial but also at the time of remand. This right cannot be denied to a convict on administrative or financial grounds.
In the same manner in Nalini Satpathy V. P.L.Dani, the court held that the refusal of legal representation amounts to the infringement of the maxim of Audi Alteram Partem and ultimately violating the principle of natural justice.
Exceptions to this Maxim of Audi Alteram Partem
It is important to clarify that the word exception doesn’t mean the principles of natural justice and fair play will not be there. These exceptions only denote those conditions in which nothing Unfair will occur even if certain conditions of this maxim are relaxed. These conditions or exceptions are as follows:
Case of Emergency
In the time of emergency, quick and prompt action is required and all the formalities are set aside. During that period, the rights of general interest are given priority over the individual interest. So, all those conditions are relaxed which hamper the quick decision-making process. The mandatory issuance of notice and adequate opportunity of hearing are some of those conditions which may be relaxed and the decision could be taken without following them.
However, It is important to note that this power of relaxing some conditions shall not be used arbitrarily as our hon’ble court can take cognizance of the same and review their conduct. If some mischief or arbitrariness appears to the court, then suitable legal proceedings under the Contempt of Court Act or under other similar statutes can be initiated. In the case of Swadeshi Cotton Mills V. Union of India, the court stated that the interpretation of the word “immediate” in section 18-A of the Industries (Development and Regulation) Act doesn’t provide for the suspension of the rules of natural justice.
Some documents are of utmost importance and they shall necessarily be kept confidential. In the case of Malak Singh V. State Of Punjab And Haryana, the Hon’ble Supreme Court stated that the surveillance register maintained by the police is a confidential document and neither the person whose name is present in the register nor any other member has the right to access it. The court also held that following the principle of natural justice in the present case will make the entire process of surveillance paralyzed.
Sometimes, due to certain inevitable conditions, it becomes impractical to approach the other party and follow all the principles of a fair trial. Thus, in those circumstances, the maxim of Audi Alteram Partem can be relaxed. In the case of R. Radhakrishnan V. Osmania University, the college administration cancelled the MBA entrance examination due to Mass cheating and it was not possible to issue notice and hear all the students. Thus, the court relaxed the condition on grounds of impracticability.
Relaxation In Cases Of Interim Preventive Action
The principle of natural justice can be relaxed in case of the order of the administration is a preventive or interim order. In the case of Abhay Kumar Vs K. Srinivasan, the university order debarred a student from entering the university and attending classes until criminal proceedings against him is settled in the court. The student challenged this step of the university on the ground of violation of natural justice. The court stated that the order is merely interim or temporary in nature with an objective to maintain peace on the campus, thus it can be excluded from the purview of natural justice.
Relaxation in Case of Statutory necessity or exception
As per this provision, if a person comes into a situation in which he is the single person to decide and make the decision on a matter, then we can’t question his decision on the ground of biasedness. This exception is very important for the working of the entire administration department.
In the famous Bhopal Gas disaster case, the Central government represented all the victims in matters of compensation and was contested by the respondent. The court held that the doctrine of necessity will be applicable in the present case as it is not possible for all the individual applicants to come and present his case. Thus, there appears to be no infringement of the principle of natural justice. In India, the concept of class action suits is also being incorporated.
Exclusion In Case Of Contractual Arrangement
If some parties mutually agreed to terminate some provisions of natural justice, then the court can intervene in that matter. In the case of the State of Gujarat V. M.P. Shah Charitable Trust, the court held that the principles of natural justice will not be attracted in case of any arrangement in the contractual field. The termination of an agreement is not a quasi-judicial function and it can’t be subject to the scrutiny of the judiciary.
Furthermore, In our legislative framework, there are certain statutes in which hearing is prohibited thus, the principle of natural justice can be relaxed.
It is a well-settled law that the maxim of Audi Alteram Partem will only apply to the administrative or the quasi-judicial function. It will not have any implication in the case in which the powers are merely regulatory in nature. The academic events of a university are examples of regulatory functions.
In the case of Jawaharlal Nehru University v. B.S. Narwal, a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University was barred from attending the class as his academic performance was very poor. He challenged this decision in the supreme court by stating that he has not been given a fair opportunity to present his case. The court held that the academic curriculum and other related matters are designed by their subject matter experts and we should not interfere in the policy of a particular institution.
The principle of natural justice has emerged since the beginning of mankind. The maxim “Audi Alteram Partem” is the foundation stone of natural justice. These advocates for the right of fair hearing in a trial to achieve justice in the true spirit. It includes the issuance of the notice, fair opportunity to present evidence, right to cross witness, etc. This maxim is based on the principle of just, fairness and equity.
However, In certain extreme conditions, the elements of this maxim are relaxed. These conditions involve the state of emergency, impracticality, contractual arrangement, interim order etc. But it is specifically noted that fairness always remains there even though the provisions are relaxed.