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Government Litigation and Supreme Court
by Suresh C. Gupta*

Cite as : (1996) 5 SCC (Jour) 12

The Government and its instrumentalities are the largest litigants in the country and thousands of cases involving them are pending disposal before different courts including the Apex Court. The unsatisfactory manner in which these cases are conducted has become a matter of great concern for all including the Supreme Court. The Court in Union of India v. Rahul Rasgotra1 had expressed its anguish thus:

"This shows the apathy of the persons responsible for the conduct of the case on behalf of the Government of India. We are not sure whether such lapses of the persons responsible for conduct of the case on behalf of the Government are deliberate or inadvertent but they are certainly culpable which need to be investigated by the authorities concerned to identify the delinquents and punish them in public interest. It is time that the derelicts are also held accountable and liable for the loss of public money due to their lapses."2

This was not the first time that the Court was constrained to comment upon this unhappy situation.3 While in some cases it only warned against the misuse of State machinery in certain cases it went to the extent of awarding compensation to the affected parties.

Of late, the Supreme Court was presented with some cases involving laxity of some officers or the deliberate manipulation of some others in conducting the cases to harass people. It is a matter of great satisfaction that the Court has been prompt in awarding compensation to those harassed. In some such cases the Court has ordered the Government to recover the amount of compensation from the erring officers. For example, in Lucknow Development Authority v. M.K. Gupta4 while awarding compensation to the persons who were harassed due to malicious and oppressive exercise of power by the officers, the Court directed that the said compensation shall be recovered from the officers proportionately from their salary.

The Court's judgment in Central Cooperative Consumers Stores Ltd. v. Labour Court5 is revealing. In this case, the services of a salesgirl were illegally terminated at the instance of a manager of the Cooperative Consumers Store. Apart from insult, humiliation and harassment thrust on her, the manager removed her from service without giving a notice to her. Nor did he get permission of the Administrator to remove her. The salesgirl had been apprising her superiors of the manager's misbehaviour and of her apprehensions that he was out to get rid of her. But when she was removed they stood by the manager. The Assistant Registrar held the termination order invalid and directed the Cooperative Consumers Store to reinstate her but he did not grant any back wages. For eight months the order was not implemented by the manager as he was contemplating to file the appeal. Since then the salesgirl had been knocking at the door of the Cooperative Store but to no use. She was made to approach the appellate authority, the revising authority, the High Court, the Labour Court and finally the High Court again as the Cooperative Store in spite of its failure to be successful anywhere went on filing appeal and revision forcing her to file cross-appeal or revision or even writ for her back wages and other benefits. Not one authority, even in the cooperative department found in favour of the Cooperative Store. Yet it had the obstinacy not only to approach the Supreme Court but to place the blame of inordinate delay on adjudicatory process. As per the Supreme Court such obstinacy without the least regard of the financial implications could only be indulged in by a public body like the Cooperative Store as those entrusted to look after the affairs of public bodies do not have any personal involvement and the money that they squander in such litigation is not their own.

The Supreme Court felt deeply pained to note the above "state of affairs" and observed:

"Public money has been wasted due to adamant behaviour not only of the officer who terminated the services but also due to cantankerous attitude adopted by those responsible for pursuing the litigation before the one or the other authority. They have literally persecuted her. Despite unequal strength the opposite-party has managed to survive. We are informed that the opposite-party has been reinstated. This was put forward as bona fide conduct of petitioner to persuade us to modify the order in respect of back wages. Facts speak otherwise. Working life of opposite-party has been lost in this tortuous and painful litigation of more than twenty years. That for such thoughtless acts of its officers the petitioner-society has to suffer and pay an amount exceeding three lakhs is indeed pitiable. But considering the agony and suffering of the opposite-party that amount cannot be a proper recompense. We, therefore, dismiss this petition as devoid of any merit and direct the petitioner to comply with the directions of the High Court within the time granted by it. We however leave it open to the society to replenish itself and recover the amount of back wages paid by it to the opposite-party from the personal salary of the officers of the society who have been responsible for this endless litigation including the officer who was responsible for terminating the services of the opposite-party. We may clarify that the permission given shall have nothing to do with the direction to pay the respondent her back wages. Step if any to recover the amount shall be taken only after payment is made to the opposite-party as directed by the High Court."6

This reasoning has been rightly followed by the Court in Radha Bai v. Union Territory of Pondicherry.7 It was a case which involved the harassment of a woman officer of the Pondicherry Administration. She was fighting for her cause for 17 years. Ultimately the Supreme Court ordered the Government to pay her compensation on the basis that a responsible statutory authority or administration owes a duty to the public to discharge its functions reasonably, honestly and bona fide, without driving the aggrieved persons from pillar to post, and should there be any non-excusable lapse on this score, the authority concerned or administration should be held responsible for the loss of damage accruing thereby to the aggrieved persons.8

The above state of affairs, therefore, calls upon the Government and its instrumentalities to take effective steps in order to check the malaise which is breeding in their offices and curb the tendency of the officers to either overreach the Court or to act negligently while conducting cases. The abovesaid cases are eye-openers giving a sordid picture of the role played by the officers concerned.

Large amounts of public money is being spent on these litigations and there has to be certain amount of accountability/responsibility towards the people of this country. Further, citizens of this country are entitled to know as to what steps have been taken by those in authority for eradicating the above evil and remedying the situation. It is suggested that at every court level there should be a body set up consisting of not only high-ups in the executive but also a retired judicial officer. This body should thoroughly scrutinise the manner in which the cases are conducted, suggest effective remedies and further enforce the same. Officers responsible for deliberate or negligent conduct should be held personally liable for losing cases and consequently causing loss to public money.

In fact, the courts adjudicating upon a matter on finding dereliction or laxity on the part of the officers concerned should themselves impose exemplary costs besides passing strictures. Until this is done, the state of affairs in the courts with regard to the government litigations will not improve and the public will remain the sufferers.

* Advocate, Supreme Court of India, New Delhi Return to Text

  1. (1994) 2 SCC 600 Return to Text
  2. .Id at 609 g-h Return to Text
  3. See Union of India v. A. Radhakrishnan, 1991 Supp (2) SCC 208 wherein, giving a judgment against the Government on its failure to provide the required information to overcome the adverse decision in spite of several opportunites given, the Court lamented on the ineptitude with which litigation involving important issues was conducted on behalf of the Government. Return to Text
  4. (1994) 4 SCC 243 Return to Text
  5. (1993) 3 SCC 214 Return to Text
  6. Id. at 216 d-g Return to Text
  7. (1995) 4 SCC 141 Return to Text
  8. Id. at 147 Return to Text
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