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Ghaidan v Godin-Mendoza remains the leading case on rights-compliant interpretation under section 3 of the UK Human Rights Act 1998. In Ghaidan, the majority on the House of Lords held that even when the meaning of a statute seems clear, courts can depart from parliamentary intention to read legislation in a European Convention-compliant manner. Lord Nicholls emphasised that ‘the particular form of words’ used would not be determinative in ascertaining whether or not section 3 could be invoked.
The Supreme Court of India, on the other hand, has been careful over the years in ascribing to itself an interpretive power which is narrower than the Ghaidan variety. The Court consistently held that it would not distort or depart from statutory language where its plain meaning was clear. Then came Namit Sharma v Union of India (which I will, for reasons that will be self evident later, refer to as Sharma I). This was a case involving a challenge to some of the provisions of the Right to Information Act 2005 – a revolutionary law that seeks to increase transparency in the functioning of public authorities. The Act provides for the appointment of central and state information commissioners to monitor compliance. It requires commissioners to be ‘persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance’. The petitioner in Sharma I contended that these eligibility criteria were arbitrary and vague, and violated the right to equality under article 14 of the Constitution. In his argument, since the commissioners performed functions of a judicial nature, Parliament transgressed constitutional boundaries by failing to specify that they should possess judicial experience.
The Supreme Court’s judgment in Sharma I was remarkable. The Court considered that the provisions of the Act, as they stood, were unconstitutional. But rather than striking down the relevant provisions, it sought to interpret them so as to fall within constitutional parameters. The Court stipulated that since the commissioners performed quasi-judicial functions, they should predominantly be persons who have a judicial background and experience in adjudication. If some experts from other fields were appointed as commissioners, they should only make decisions as part of a two-member bench, along with a commissioner having judicial experience. The Act established a ‘High Powered Committee’, consisting of political leaders from the government and the opposition, for the appointment of commissioners. The Court went on to radically modify the process of appointment of commissioners, holding that since they perform quasi-judicial functions, the judiciary (more specifically, the Chief Justice of India/Chief Justice of the relevant state) should also be consulted in the appointment of commissioners with judicial experience.
This judgment clearly transgressed the dividing line between interpretation and amendment and went far beyond what even British courts, armed with the section 3 mandate, would do following the Ghaidan dictum. In Ghaidan itself, the House of Lords recognised that it would refrain from interpreting a statutory provision in a manner inconsistent with a ‘fundamental feature’ of the statute. By insisting that commissioners should consist of (and perhaps more remarkably, be appointed by) judges, the Court undermined Parliament’s intention of ensuring that a diversity of viewpoints are represented in the quest for increasing transparency and access to information. If the Court arrived at the conclusion that the absence of a robust judicial role in the composition and appointment of commissioners rendered the provisions of the Act unconstitutional, the appropriate response would have been to strike them down.
Understandably, Sharma I was received with disfavor both within the government and outside it. The government filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its judgment, claiming that it was based on an ‘error apparent on the face of the record’. In Union of India v Namit Sharma (Sharma II), the Supreme Court agreed with the government, holding that its previous decision was an ‘encroachment’ of Parliament’s domain and ‘contrary to the principles of statutory interpretation’ recognised by the Court. So presumably, the Court hastily retreated back to its original position on interpretation.
But what was most interesting about Sharma II is the remedial path taken by the Court. Despite having similar misgivings about the eligibility requirements for commissioners as the Sharma I bench, the Court declared the relevant provisions constitutionally valid, only choosing to mention that it hoped that ‘persons with wide knowledge and experience in law will be appointed’. So why did the court refuse to invoke the power to strike down the Act? The explanation might be rooted in the nature of the strike down power. The invalidation of the relevant provisions of the Act would probably have led to the unenforceability of the entire statutory regime. How comfortable would the Court have been striking down a statute which formed part of the United Progressive Alliance government’s ‘common minimum programme’ and which was considered a hallmark of parliamentary democracy? In contrast, a British Court in the same situation would probably have made a declaration of incompatibility knowing that the statutory scheme would not be disturbed until Parliament responded. If the Supreme Court of India could issue a declaration of incompatibility, would it have done so instead of reluctantly upholding the constitutionality of the statute? Sadly, this question will remain in the realm of speculation.
Chintan Chandrachud is a PhD Candidate at Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge
Suggested citation: C. Chandrachud, ‘Beyond Ghaidan and Back: the Supreme Court of India on Rights-Compliant Interpretation’ UK Const. L. Blog (29th November 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)