Child Abuse Laws in India: Fortifying the Formative Years

Child abuse is a pervasive and disturbing problem in India, with millions of children being subjected to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse every year. Between the years 2017-2020, there were 24 Lakhs Cases of child abuse that were reported, out of which 80% of the victims were girl below the age of 14.[1]  The Government of India has implemented several legal measures to protect children from abuse, and these measures are aimed at preventing, detecting, and punishing perpetrators of child abuse. The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015[2] defines child abuse as any physical, sexual, emotional, or economic maltreatment of a child. This includes neglect, abandonment, exploitation, and any other form of harmful treatment.

Despite the high numbers of reported cases, many cases of child abuse go unreported, and the true extent of the problem is likely to be even greater. The effects of child abuse can be devastating, leading to long-term physical and mental health problems, as well as social and economic consequences. It is essential that the government and civil society organizations work together to prevent child abuse and support victims.

Historically, we have witnessed constructive changes in laws, policies and recognition of human rights and child rights. The Constitution of India guarantees children’s rights[1]

  • Article 21A guarantees the right to free and compulsory elementary for all children in the age group 6-14 years.
  • Article 24(a) secures the right to be protected from any hazardous employment until 14 years.
  • Children have equal rights as all other adult citizens of India, like, the Right to Equality (Article 14), Right to Personal Liberty and the process of law (Article 21), Right to being protected from being trafficked and forced into bonded labour (Article 23), etc.

Child Protection Laws in India are framed in line with constitutional provisions for safeguarding child rights. More than 250 statutes in India have been passed by the Union and State Governments. Some of the important legislations and their important provisions are as follows:

Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC)

  • Section 75 of the code provides for punishment for cruelty to a child, while Section 76 provides for punishment for abetment of suicide of a child.
  • The abandonment of a child below the age of twelve years is dealt under Section 317, Punishment for abandonment is imprisonment up to seven years or fine or both.
  • Inducing any minor girl to have sexual intercourse with another person is punishable under Section 366A. This crime shall be punishable with imprisonment up to ten years and a fine.
  • Section 372and Section 373 of the act penalises selling or buying minor girls for prostitution and illicit intercourse for any unlawful and immoral purpose, with imprisonment under, which may extend up to ten years and a fine. [2]

The Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (IEA)

As per Section 118 of the Indian Evidence Act, all persons, including a child or an aged except a tender year, extreme old age, disease – whether of body or mind or any other similar cause, are competent to be considered as a witness in the court of law if they are able to understand the questions put to them, or able to give rational answers to those questions.[3]

 

Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 (CrPC)

Also, after the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, the punishment for rape of a minor girl has been aggravated (made more serious) under section 376(2)(i) of IPC. The punishment for rape of females below 16 years of age shall be minimum rigorous imprisonment of ten years which can extend up to life imprisonment. [4]

The list of the child protection laws passed by the Union Government includes the following:

Children Pledging of Labour Act, 1933 (CPLA)

CPLA prohibits the pledging of the labour of children by the parent and any other person who employs children who have been pledged for labour. [5]

Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 (CLA)

Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 [6] is a law for the protection of children from child labour in India. The act prohibits the employment of children in hazardous occupations and also sets the minimum age for employment in any kind of work.

The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1987 (ITPA)

The act makes it illegal to procure, transport, or hire a person for the purpose of sexual exploitation or prostitution. This act also makes it illegal to traffic children for any purpose, regardless of their gender. [7]

Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (POCMA):

POCMA [8] follows the basic premise

  1. to make a child go through marriage is an offence, and
  2. child or minor is a person up to 18 years of age in the case of girls and 21 years in the case of boys.

Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009

The State were mandated to provide free and compulsory education within ten years under the Right to education. It was earlier a Directive Principles of State but now, the Right to Education is acknowledged under the fundamental rights, making it a justiciable right under Article 21A. The Right to Education Act, 2009, [9] also known as RTE Act describes modalities of the importance of free and compulsory education for children aged between 6-14 years in India.

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSOA):

The POSCOA [10] was enacted to address and/or prevent sexual harassment, exploitation, sexual assault, abuse pornography and immoral acts against children. Under the Act, sexual abuse of a child is defined as any act that involves physical contact with a child or causes the child to be in a state of sexual arousal or stimulation. This includes penetrative and non-penetrative sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation.

 Some of its key features are:

  • It is not gender-specific and penalises abetment of child abuse.
  • The Act holds that a child is any person below the age of 18 years.
  • It defines different forms of sexual abuse and makes provisions for creating a child-friendly atmosphere through all stages of the judicial process and avoid revictimization.
  • The act also provides for strict punishment for the perpetrators of child sexual abuse. The punishment for sexual assault on a child under the age of 12 years is imprisonment for a minimum of 20 years, which may extend to life imprisonment. For sexual assault on a child between the age of 12 to 18 years, the punishment is imprisonment for a minimum of 10 years, which may extend to life imprisonment.
  • It gives vital importance to the best interest of the child which can be seen incorporated in the statute as child-friendly mechanisms for reporting, recording of evidence, investigations, speedy trials of offences and in-camera trial without revealing the child’s identity through designated special courts.
  • It mandates the use of video-conferencing for recording the statements of the child victim, thus protecting them from the trauma of appearing in court.
  • Moreover, the law also requires mandatory reporting of child abuse. Any person who has knowledge of child abuse is required to report it to the police or a designated child protection agency. Failure to report child abuse is punishable with imprisonment for up to six months, or a fine, or both.

Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (JJA):

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 [11] is a legislation in India that deals with the treatment of underage offenders. The Act, which came into force on January 15, 2016, replaces the previous Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000.

Under the Act, a child is defined as anyone who is below the age of 18 years. JJA classifies the term “child” into two categories:

  1. ‘child in conflict with law’ and
  2. ‘child in need of care and protection’

The Act provides for the establishment of Juvenile Justice Boards and Child Welfare Committees to deal with the issues of children in conflict with the law and children in need of care and protection. These bodies are responsible for ensuring that the rights of children are protected and that they are treated in a manner that is conducive to their overall development.

The Act also provides for the establishment of special homes and observation homes to provide shelter, care, and protection to children in need. One of the major changes introduced by the Act is the provision for trying certain juveniles between the ages of 16 and 18 years as adults if they are accused of committing heinous offenses. This has been a controversial provision, with some arguing that it goes against the principles of the Act and may lead to discrimination against certain juveniles.

The Act prescribes punishment for the various offences against children such as enhanced punishment for cruelty to children from six months to three years. The selling or buying of children will be a punishable offence with imprisonment of five years. Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Amendment Act, 2021 was passed to amend various provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development on 31st August, 2022 in New Delhi vide notification mentioned in exercise of the Powers conferred by sub-section (2) of section 1 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Amendment Act, 2021 (23 of 2021), the Central Government appoints the 1st day of September, 2022 as the date on which the said Act shall come into force.

 

National Commission for Protection of Child Rights

National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) [12], has been incorporated under the Ministry of Woman and Child Development by the central government, to regulate all laws and programmes with a child-centric approach. The commission can also take suo moto cognisance for violation of child rights.

Child Welfare Committee (CWC)

The Child Welfare Committee (CWC) [13] has been formed under the Woman and Child Development Department to tend to the children in need of care and protection. The Committee is to be informed about any child abuse within 24 hours by the police officer, then a person is appointed to support the child and be responsible for the psycho-social well-being of the child. The CWC person will keep the child’s family updated about the case. Any reporting of child abuse can be done by dialling the toll-free number 1098.

 

Conclusion:

While the world has made significant progress in education, nutrition and child health in the past decade, India has been ranked 118 on the End of Childhood Index [14]. Despite several child protection acts, we still witness various forms of child rights being violated, including denial and inability to access the right to food, right to education, right to health and right against exploitation. There are extensive laws to protect children, and child protection is increasingly accepted as a core component of social development. The challenge is in implementing the laws due to inadequate human resource capacity on the ground and quality prevention and rehabilitation services. As a result, millions of children are prone to violence, abuse and exploitation. 

Furthermore, the lack of awareness and understanding of the issue among the general public, as well as among law enforcement and judicial officials, makes it difficult to identify and prosecute perpetrators of child abuse. This lack of awareness also makes it difficult for victims to seek help and support.

To address the issue of child abuse in India, it is essential to implement effective laws and policies that provide adequate protection for children, and to educate the public about the issue. This can include measures such as strengthening the existing laws, increasing funding for child protection services, and implementing awareness campaigns to educate the public about the signs and effects of child abuse. Another effective method of dissemination of information could be through designing workshops to be given in schools, to educators, to caretakers and to the minors about the forms of abuse, the remedies and the rights.

References:

[1]  India reported over 24L online child abuse cases in 2017-20: Interpol | Business Standard News (business-standard.com)

[2] The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015

[1] The Constitution of India

[2] Indian Penal Code, 1860

[3] The Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (IEA

[4] Criminal Procedure Code, 1973

[5] Children Pledging of Labour Act, 1933

[6] Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986

[7] The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1987 (ITPA)

[8] Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (POCMA)

[9] Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009

[10] The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012

[11] Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015

[12] National Commission for Protection of Child Rights

[13] Child Welfare Committee

[14] 2021-global-childhood-report.pdf (childhealthtaskforce.org)

Image Credits: 

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Despite the high numbers of reported cases, many cases of child abuse go unreported, and the true extent of the problem is likely to be even greater. The effects of child abuse can be devastating, leading to long-term physical and mental health problems, as well as social and economic consequences. It is essential that the government and civil society organizations work together to prevent child abuse and support victims.

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Mapping the Role of the Judiciary in Upholding the Expansive Eloquence of Article 21

According to Justice Field in the renowned case “Munn v. Illinois,” the term “life” refers to more than just animal existence and encompasses both the physical and qualitative aspects of life. In addition to freedom from arrest, detention, and unjust or improper confinement, the term “personal liberty” also refers to the rights and privileges necessary for achieving happiness in a free society.

Fundamental rights are protected under the charter of rights in the Constitution of India. Article 21 (“said Article”) is a fundamental right which is included in Part-III of Indian Constitution and one of the most important rights that the Constitution guarantees. The said Article of the Constitution of India provides “Protection of Life and Personal Liberty – No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” This implies that this right has been provided against the State only. State here includes not just the government, but also, government departments, local bodies, the Legislatures, etc. 

This right is available to all citizens as well as non-citizens alike. It talks about equality before the law, freedom of speech and expression, religious and cultural freedom, etc. It is the most organic and progressive provision in our living Constitution. 

The said Article can only be claimed when a person is deprived of his ‘life or ‘personal liberty’ by the ‘State’ as defined in Article 12.  The said Article provides two rights: 1) Right to life and 2) Right to personal liberty. It prohibits the deprivation of the above rights except according to a procedure established by law.

The said Article is not an absolute right. The State can impose restrictions on the right to life and liberty, but it should be fair, reasonable and just, and as per the procedure established by law. During a national emergency, the six freedoms under Right to Freedom are automatically suspended. By contrast, Article 21 – the Right to Life and Personal Liberty cannot be suspended according to the original Constitution. 

 

Interpretation of Article 21

 

Indian Judiciary or the Supreme Court (SC) is the protector of the fundamental rights of Indian citizens and the guardian of the Indian constitution because it has been given the power to protect, safeguard and uphold the Constitution and its various components. Judicial intervention has ensured that the scope of Article 21 is not narrow and restricted. It has been widened by several landmark judgements.

A few important cases concerned with the Said Article are stated hereunder:

It started with the famous case of A.K Gopalan vs. State of Madras [AIR 1950 SC 27]. Until the 1950s, Article 21 had a bit of a narrow scope. In this case, SC’s narrow interpretation of Article 21 led to some serious implications. SC said that Article 21 is available only against arbitrary executive action and not legislative arbitrariness. It is because of the expression ‘procedure established by the law’ in Article 21, which is different from the expression American ‘due process of law’. Hence, the validity of a law that has prescribed a procedure cannot be questioned because the law is unreasonable, or unjust.

The Supreme Court took the view that the right to life in Article 21 would not include the right to livelihood. In Re Sant Ram [AIR 1960 SC 932], a case arose before the Maneka Gandhi case, where the Supreme Court ruled that the right to livelihood would not fall within the expression ‘life’ in Article 21. The Court said curtly on 7th April, 1960:

“The Right to livelihood would be included in the freedoms enumerated in Article 19, or even in Article 16, in a limited sense. But the language of Article 21 cannot be pressed into aid of the argument that the word ‘life’ in Article 21 includes ‘livelihood’ also.”

In the case of Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India [AIR 1978 SC 597], the Supreme Court overruled its judgment of the Gopalan Case by taking a wider interpretation of Article 21 on 25th January, 1978. The SC said that Articles 19 and 21 are not watertight compartments. The idea of personal liberty in Article 21 has a wide scope including many rights, some of which are embodied under Article 19, thus giving them ‘additional protection’. The SC gave a new dimension to Article 21 and held that the right to live is not merely a physical right but includes within its ambit the right to live with human dignity.

Elaborating the same view that the right to life would include the right to live with human dignity in Francis Coralie Mullin vs. The Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi & Ors [AIR 1981 SC 746], the SC held on 13th January, 1981 that the right to life is not merely animal existence. It means something more than just physical survival. With this interpretation given to the Said Article, the door was made open for various kinds of rights which will have to be read into the Right to live with human dignity. The SC also observed:

“The right to live includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, viz., the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter over the head and facilities for reading writing and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and mingling with fellow human beings and must include the right to basic necessities the basic necessities of life and also the right to carry on functions and activities as constitute the bare minimum expression of human self.”

Justice P. Bhagwati had said that Article 21 ‘embodies a constitutional value of supreme importance in a democratic society’. Further, Justice Iyer characterised Article 21 as ‘the procedural Magna Carta protective of life and liberty’.

In another case Olga Tellis & Ors vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation & Ors [1986 AIR 180, 1985 SCR Supl. (2) 51]  was a 1985 case in the Supreme Court of India popularly known as the ‘Pavement Dwellers Case’, a five-judge bench of the SC on 10th July, 1985 ruled that the word ‘life’ in Article 21 includes the ‘right to livelihood’ also and that the right to livelihood is borne out of the right to life. It said so as no person can live without the means of living, that is, the means of livelihood. The Court further observed:

“The sweep of the right to life conferred by Art.21 is wide and far-reaching. It does not mean, merely that life cannot be extinguished or taken away as, for example, by the imposition and execution of death sentence, except according to procedure established by law. That is but one aspect of the right to life. An equally important facet of the right to life is the right to livelihood because no person can live without the means of livelihood.”

In another case of Subhash Kumar vs. State of Bihar [AIR 1991 SC 420], the SC on 9th January, 1991 held that the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution includes the rights to pollution free water and free air for full enjoyment of life. Through this case, the SC recognized the right to a wholesome environment as part of the fundamental right to life.

In Unni Krishnan J.P. & Ors vs. State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors (AIR 1993 SC 217), the SC on 4th February, 1993 upheld the expanded interpretation of the right to life and observed that Article 21 is the heart of Fundamental Rights, and it has extended the Scope of the Said Article by observing that the life includes education, as well as the right to education, flows from the right to life. The 86th Constitutional Amendment in 2002, provided the Right to Education as a fundamental right in Part-III of the Constitution. It inserted Article 21A which made the Right to Education a fundamental right for children between 6-14 years. It provided for a follow-up legislation Right to Education Act 2009. Article 21A states that the State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of 6 to 14 years in such manner as the State may by law determine.

In Chameli Singh vs. State of UP [1995 Supp (6) SCR 827], a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court on 15th December, 1995 had considered and held that the right to shelter is a fundamental right available to every citizen. And the same was read into Article 21 of the Constitution. Thus, ‘right to shelter’ was considered encompassing the right to life, making the latter more meaningful. The Court advanced:

“Shelter for a human being, therefore, is not mere protection of his life and limb. It is however where he has opportunities to grow physically, mentally, intellectually and spiritually. Right to shelter, therefore, includes adequate living space, safe and decent structure, clean and decent surroundings, sufficient light, pure air and water, electricity, sanitation and other civic amenities like roads etc. so as to have easy access to his daily avocation. The right to shelter, therefore, does not mean a mere right to a roof over one’s head but right to all the infrastructure necessary to enable them to live and develop as a human being.”

In a historic ruling in the case of Murli S. Deora v. Union of India & Ors (AIR 2002 SC 40), SC found that the fundamental right guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution provides that no one shall be deprived of his life without due process of law. SC ordered ban on smoking in public places after considering the harm that smoking causes to both smokers and passive smokers. The SC ruled that passive smokers’ right to life is violated when they smoke in public settings. The Supreme Court, seeing the gravity of the situation and the harmful effects of smoking on smokers and passive smokers, issued an order prohibiting smoking in public areas. It not only outlawed smoking in public places, but it also declared that the right to a healthy environment is a fundamental right guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

In Suchita Srivastava & Anr v. Chandigarh Administration [AIR (2009) 9 SCC 1], the appellant, a “mentally retarded woman,” contested the High Court of Punjab & Haryana’s decision to terminate her pregnancy against her will. Subject to a few exceptions, the MTP Act requires consent for a pregnancy termination. The case raised previously unanswered issues regarding a mentally retarded person’s reproductive right. The most contentious abortion-related issues are currently the subject of numerous discussions as a result of the Apex Court’s decision. The SC, by its Order dated 28th August, 2009, overturned the decision of the Punjab & Haryana High Court, and held that the right to reproductive choice flows from the right to liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. It was stated that taking away a woman’s choice regarding her own body would amount to infringement of her right to privacy. It further distinguished between mental illness and mental retardation and considered that the woman’s mental retardation did not take away her right to make a decision regarding her reproductive choices. As a result, it held that a termination of her pregnancy without her consent could not be ordered.

The Hon’ble Apex Court has recently categorically recognized in the case of Budhadev Karmaskar v. State of West Bengal and Others (AIR 2011 SC 2636) popularly known as the sex workers case, that the basic protection of human decency and dignity under Article 21 of the  Constitution of India extends to sex workers and their children, who bearing the brunt of  social stigma attached to their work,  are  removed to the fringes of society, deprived of their right to live with dignity and opportunities to provide the same to their children. To emphasise and elaborate on the purview of the right to life under Article 21, reference has been made to the Court’s earlier  rulings.

In Ramlila Maidan Incident Dt. 4/5.6.2011 vs. Home Secretary, Union of India & Ors [(2012) 5 SCC 1], Right to Sleep has been acknowledged as a fundamental right under the Said Article. Right to Sleep is a fundamental right, says SC. In his concurring judgment, Justice Chauhan wrote: An individual is entitled to sleep as comfortably and as freely as he breathes. Sleep is essential for a human being to maintain the delicate balance of health necessary for its very existence and survival.

The Right to Property was removed as a fundamental right in 1978, and the Right to Privacy has been recently added. Right to Privacy is a Fundamental Right. Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) vs. UOI & Ors [AIR 2017 SC 4161, (2017) 10 SCC 1], also known as ‘Aadhar Judgment’ is the most recent landmark judgment of the Said Article. Decided by nine bench judges on 26th September, 2018, they unanimously recognized the Right to Privacy as a fundamental right of every individual guaranteed by the Constitution, within the Said Article. 

In Common Cause (A Regd. Society) Vs. Union of India & Anr [AIR 2018 SC 1665], a five-judge Constitution Bench on 9th March, 2018 upheld the legality of passive euthanasia by allowing patients to withdraw medical support if they enter an irreversible state of coma. The ruling was written by Chief Justice Dipak Mishra. According to  SC, the right to die with dignity is a fundamental right.

Shakti Vahini v. Union of India & Ors [2018 (7) SCC 192] is a landmark case when it comes to the matter of Honour killing. In this case, the right to select one’s life partner was decided and was held that any attempt by Khap Panchayats or any other assembly to scuttle or preventing two consenting adults from marrying is absolutely ‘illegal’ and laid down preventive, remedial and punitive measures in this regard.SC recently ruled that the freedom to select one’s life partner is a fundamental right protected by Article 21 and by an Order dated 27th March, 2018 laid down guidelines that need to be implemented by the government to eradicate and/or curb the practice of Honour killing in India. Honour killing is the homicide of a member of a family by other members, due to the perpetrators having the belief that the victim violated the principles of a community or a religion and that the victim has brought shame or dishonour upon the family. Assertion of choice is an in-segregable facet of liberty and dignity.

 

Conclusion 

‘Life’ under Article 21 of the Constitution is not merely the physical act of breathing. It does not connote mere animal existence or continued drudgery through life. It has a much wider meaning including the right to live with human dignity, right to livelihood, right to pollution-free air, right to education, right to shelter, right to sleep, right to privacy, etc. The right to life is fundamental to our very existence, without which we cannot live as human beings and includes all those aspects of life, which make a person’s life meaningful, complete, and worth living. It is the only Article in the Constitution that has received the broadest possible interpretation.

Image Credits: Photo by Sora Shimazaki 

‘Life’ under Article 21 of the Constitution is not merely the physical act of breathing. It does not connote mere animal existence or continued drudgery through life. It has a much wider meaning including the right to live with human dignity, right to livelihood, right to pollution-free air, right to education, right to shelter, right to sleep, right to privacy, etc.

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Turning a Corner With Live Streaming of Constitutional Matters

On September 27, 2022, India’s Supreme Court began to live-stream hearings of all matters taken up by its constitutional benches, making them fully accessible to the public in real-time. This follows a decision that was first taken in September 2018. Although the pandemic caused a delay in the implementation of this decision, it is noteworthy that this decision reportedly had the support of all judges (including CJIs). This speaks to the judiciary’s willingness to adapt to change and play its role in strengthening India’s democratic traditions and enhancing the efficiency of its justice delivery system, which bears a disproportionately huge burden given India’s demography.

By and large, courtroom proceedings around the world are not permitted to be legally recorded, let alone broadcast. This decision by India’s highest court of law makes us one of the few countries (if not the only one) where certain types of hearings are now open to audiences worldwide. I believe this is a good move that has a number of benefits, although given the increasingly digital world we live in, there are also some downside risks.

Benefits

A key malaise that has long beset India’s justice delivery system is the tendency of lawyers of one or both parties to seek frequent adjournments as a matter of routine strategy. While this may be legitimate in some cases (e.g., awaiting evidence, unavailability of witnesses, etc.), it is also blatantly used as a tactic to cover for lack of preparation, to buy time, or simply delay justice delivery. Not for nothing has the Indian judiciary been accused of abetting “taareekh pe taareekh” (moving from one date of hearing to another with no substantive progress towards a verdict).

Allowing the public to view proceedings will help ordinary citizens understand the process better, and thus build more confidence in the judiciary. With the performance and reputations of at least some advocates under public glare, we can expect that they will be better prepared to argue matters. Advocates on Record (AOR) will expect to be fully briefed in time, forcing lawyers advising the parties to do their homework thoroughly. All this will hopefully contribute to reducing the pendency of cases because neither party (or their lawyers) will want to be seen as the ones responsible for delaying justice delivery.

The decision to live-stream matters being heard by constitutional benches will have other benefits as well. Many clients who are part of multi-party matters, class action suits or public interest litigations don’t always get updated with accurate information about what transpired. Livestreaming provides access to clients who are not in a position to physically attend the hearing; they can issue new instructions to their lawyers if necessary. This is important because matters that are typically heard by constitutional benches are those that have far-reaching implications for Indian society and the country.

Law students and young professionals at the start of their careers can learn courtcraft by watching experienced advocates/senior advocates and judges in action (how they question advocates to identify irrelevant arguments, time-wasting tactics, etc.). This will be of particular advantage to aspiring lawyers from outside the National Capital Region, for whom traveling to Delhi or interning with Supreme Court advocates is not affordable or otherwise possible.

The Down-sides

However, in the increasingly digital world we live in, such live-streaming also has some potential risks. Social media can be misused to post partial or incorrect information, and this can trigger law and order risks. Social media may be used by vested interests to malign advocates or members of the judiciary, which can vitiate not just the proceedings, but also public perception. There is also the risk of hackers, who can disrupt the streaming in various ways.

Open dialogue, transparency and fairness are basic tenets of a healthy democracy. This major step taken by India’s Supreme Court has the potential to improve India by enhancing the citizenry’s understanding of and appreciation for the rule of law. It can also raise the standards of the next generation of lawyers. Constitutional benches take up weighty matters of national importance, so I hope this step toward ushering in greater transparency will help fill the dangerous cracks that have emerged in our pluralistic country’s social fabric over the last 75 years.

By and large, courtroom proceedings around the world are not permitted to be legally recorded, let alone broadcast. This decision by India’s highest court of law makes us one of the few countries (if not the only one) where certain types of hearings are now open to audiences worldwide.

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Scope of Enquiry Under Section 11 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996

In the recent case of M/S. Emaar India Ltd v. Tarun Aggarwal Projects LLP & Anr[1]., the Hon’ble Supreme Court has held and reaffirmed its earlier view that under a Section 11 petition in the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, the Court can determine whether or not a dispute is arbitrable by conducting a preliminary inquiry.

Brief Facts

 

The case concerns Tarun Aggarwal Projects LLP & ANR (Respondents) who entered into a collaboration agreement with Emaar India Ltd. (Appellant) for the development of residential colonies located in Gurugram, Sector 62 and 65. Both parties entered into an agreement on May 7, 2009. After this, both parties signed an Addendum Agreement on April 19, 2011. Soon a dispute arose between the parties and the Respondents stated that the Appellant had not followed the obligation specified under the Addendum Agreement. Thereafter, a legal notice was issued on behalf of the Respondents on December 11, 2019, demanding the physical possession of 5 plots measuring 2160 sq. yds. and claiming a sum of Rs. 10 crores for the losses/damages suffered by them. The Respondents contended that the dispute is arbitrable in nature as mentioned under clause 37 of the Addendum Agreement. Hence, they appointed an arbitrator who was a former judge of the Hon’ble High Court. The Appellant refused the appointment of the arbitrator following which a petition under Section 11 was filed by the Respondents before the Hon’ble High Court of Delhi.

At this stage, it would be important to refer to Clauses 36 and 37 of the Addendum Agreement, which read as follows:

Dispute Resolution & Jurisdiction

  1. “In case of any conflict or difference arising between the parties or in case the either party refused or neglects to perform its part of the obligations under this Addendum Collaboration Agreement, inter­alia as mentioned in Clauses 3, 6 & 9 hereinabove, then the other party shall have every right to get this agreement specifically enforced through the appropriate court of law”.
  2. Save & except clause 36 hereinabove mentioned, all or any dispute arising out of or touching upon or in relation to the terms of this Agreement including the interpretation and validity thereof, and the respective rights and obligations of the parties, shall be settled through under the provisions of Arbitration & Conciliation Act, 1996 wherein both the parties shall be entitled to appoint one Arbitrator each and the Arbitrators so appoint shall appoint a third Arbitrator or rank of Retired Judge of any High Court. The arbitration proceedings shall be governed by the provisions of Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 or any statutory amendments/modification thereto for the time being in force. The arbitration proceedings shall be held at Delhi.”

Before the Hon’ble High Court, it was contended by the Appellant that the dispute relates to the breach of clauses 3, 6 and 9.  Therefore, it is only the Court which has the jurisdiction to entertain the dispute as per the terms of Clause 36 of the Addendum Agreement. The invocation of arbitration by the Respondents which was contended by the Appellant was thus not in alignment with the agreed terms. Alternatively, in the prayer, the Appellant suggested the nomination of their arbitrator. The Hon’ble High Court examined clauses 36 and 37 of the Addendum Agreement and held that conjoint reading of both the Clauses makes it clear that a party does have a right to seek enforcement of agreement before the Court of law, but it does not bar settlement of disputes through Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996. Moreover, Clause 37 also suggests how arbitration proceedings shall be conducted. On this ground, the Hon’ble High Court proceeded with the appointment of the third arbitrator. Aggrieved by the order of the Hon’ble High Court, the Appellant approached the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

 

Observations of the Supreme Court 

 

The seminal issue before the Hon’ble Supreme Court was whether the Hon’ble High Court has made a justified decision to appoint an arbitrator under Sec. 11(5) and 11(6) of the Arbitration Act without having a preliminary inquiry under Sec. 11 to decide the arbitrability of the dispute.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court looked at both clauses and determined that on a bare reading of Clause 36 of the Agreement, it is apparent that in the event of any dispute as mentioned in Clauses 3, 6 and 9, the other party shall have a right to get the Agreement specifically enforced through the appropriate court of law. As per Clause 37, save and except Clause 36, all or any dispute arising out of or touching upon or in relation to the terms of the addendum agreement shall be settled under the provisions of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996. Thus, with respect to any dispute as mentioned in Clauses 3, 6 & 9, such disputes are not arbitrable at all.

The Hon’ble Supreme court also cited Vidya Drolia and Ors. v. Durga Trading Corporation[2] and held that it is incumbent upon Courts to hold a preliminary enquiry under a Section 11 petition filed under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996. The Hon’ble Supreme Court noted that the Hon’ble High Court had erred in its decision and the matter was remitted back to the Hon’ble High Court to decide the petition and pass an appropriate order after having the preliminary inquiry on arbitrability of the dispute. The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that the objective of prima facie review at the reference stage is to cut the deadwood and trim off the side branches in straightforward cases where dismissal is barefaced and pellucid and when on the facts and law the litigation must stop at the first stage.

 

Conclusion

 

It is important to note that under Section 11 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, the Courts will do a preliminary enquiry as to the arbitrability of the disputes. The law in this regard has been settled by the Hon’ble Supreme Court. The purpose of such an enquiry is limited to pruning of matters which would not fall in the category of arbitrable matters. The Supreme Court had in the case of Vidya Drolia and Others v Durga Trading Corporation  laid down a four-pronged test to determine when the subject matter of a dispute in an arbitration agreement is not arbitrable:

  • When the cause of action and subject matter of the dispute relates to actions in rem, that do not pertain to subordinate rights in personam arising from rights in rem.
  • When the cause of action and subject matter of the dispute affects third party rights; has erga omnes effect; require centralized adjudication, and mutual adjudication would not be appropriate and enforceable;
  • When the cause of action and subject matter of the dispute relates to an inalienable sovereign and public interest functions of the State, hence mutual adjudication would be unenforceable;
  • When the subject matter of the dispute is expressly or by necessary implication non-arbitrable as per mandatory statute(s)

References:

[1] 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1328.

[2] (2021) 2 SCC 1.

Image Credit: Photo by EKATERINA BOLOVTSOVA

The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that the objective of prima facie review at the reference stage is to cut the deadwood and trim off the side branches in straightforward cases where dismissal is barefaced and pellucid and when on the facts and law the litigation must stop at the first stage.

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The Liquidator – A Demigod Under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016?

Recently on August 28, 2022, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India delivered a judgement in R.K. Industries (Unit-II) LLP vs. H.R. Commercials Private Limited and Others[1], interpreting the provisions of IBC concerning the powers of the liquidator vis-à-vis mode of sale of assets by the liquidator. This watershed judgement reaffirms the powers available to the liquidator to decide the best mode of sale for maximising the value of assets of the CD.

Under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (“IBC”), an order for liquidation is passed by an Adjudicating Authority, i.e., the National Company Law Tribunal (“NCLT”), when the corporate insolvency resolution process (“CIRP”) of a corporate debtor (“CD”) fails.

Liquidation is initiated when the NCLT[1]:

  • Does not receive a resolution plan during CIRP.
  • Rejects the resolution plan submitted under Section 31 of the IBC.
  • Passes an order for liquidation based on the approval of Committee of Creditors (“CoC”).
  • Passes an order for liquidation resulting from an application made by an aggrieved person for violation of the resolution plan.

The liquidator is appointed vide the liquidation order passed by the NCLT, and ordinarily, the resolution professional appointed for conducting the CIRP will be appointed as the liquidator. A liquidator, on his appointment, gets the powers of the board of directors, key managerial personnel, and the partners of the corporate debtor[2]. Among other things, a liquidator can verify the claims of all the creditors, can take into his custody or control all the assets, property, effects, and actionable claims of the corporate debtor, etc.[3] While a resolution professional acts under the instructions of the CoC during a CIRP, the liquidator is not bound by the opinion or advice provided by the stakeholders’ consultation committee[4] (“SCC”) during the liquidation process of a CD. As a result, under the scheme of the IBC, the liquidator has been given broad powers to ensure that the liquidation of a corporate debtor’s assets can be carried out with minimal disruption in order to maximise the realisation from such assets.

Facts in Brief:

The CD in R.K. Industries (Unit-II) LLP[6] was ordered to be liquidated vide order of NCLT dated April 25, 2019. Following that, the liquidator held 5 (five) e-auctions, the first 4 (four) of which failed auctions were for the sale of consolidated assets of the CD, and the fifth one offered sale of the assets on a stand-alone basis; however, the majority of assets did not attract any interest in the fifth e-auction. Under the circumstances, an application was made to the NCLT for conducting a private sale which was granted and the “Swiss Challenge Process”[7] was adopted for the sale of certain assets of the CD (Dahej material) through a private sale. The first Swiss Challenge Process was unsuccessful, and so a second one was conducted wherein the appellant submitted the bid, an earnest money deposit, and an affidavit stating that it will be bound by the terms of the Swiss Challenge Process[8].

The terms of the Swiss Challenge Process (Anchor Bid Document), inter alia, were:

“e. It is clarified that issuance of the Process Document does not create any kind of binding obligation on the part of the Liquidator or ABG to effectuate the sale of the assets of ABG.”

xxx xxx xxx

“x. The Liquidator reserves the right to cancel, abandon or reject a Bidder/Successful Bidder at any time during the process, and the Liquidator also reserves the right to disqualify a Successful Bidder, in case of any irregularities found such as ineligibility under the I & B Code.”

xxx xxx xxx

“y. Liquidator of ABGSL, reserves the right to suspend/abandon/cancel/extend or modify the process terms and/or documents and/or reject or disqualify any Bidder at any stage of process without assigning any reason and without any notice liability of whatsoever nature.”   

While the second Swiss Challenge Process was being challenged before the NCLT, Welspun Steel Resources Private Limited (Respondent No. 7) submitted a bid much higher than the appellant for the purchase of both the Dahej Material and the land (Shipyard). SCC was of the view that a composite sale of the Dahej Material and the Shipyard would be more beneficial than the sale of the Dahej Material alone. When the hearing for the application filed by the appellant was taken up, NCLT passed an order on August 16, 2021, permitting the liquidator to go in for Private Sale of all the assets of the Corporate Debtor and complete the entire sale process in consultation with the SCC within a period of three weeks. The liquidator was also directed to permit all the parties before the NCLT to participate in the bidding process.

The order of the NCLT was challenged before the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (“NCLAT”) and the NCLAT held that the second Swiss Challenge Process would stand cancelled, and that the private sale process should be undertaken in accordance with the directions contained in NCLAT’s judgment and as per relevant legal provisions.

Aggrieved by NCLAT’s judgement, the appellant in R.K. Industries (Unit-II) LLP[9] filed a limited appeal with regard to the directions issued in the penultimate paragraphs of NCLAT’s judgement of restarting the process of private sale after issuing an open notice to all prospective buyers instead of confining the same to the parties who had earlier participated in the process.

Issues:

The Supreme Court framed the following issues[10]:

  1. Whether the liquidator was justified in discontinuing the Second Swiss Challenge Process for the sale of a part of the assets of the CD, wherein the appellant was declared an anchor bidder, and opting for a private sale process through direct negotiations in respect of the composite assets of the Corporate Debtor?

If so, was the NCLAT justified in directing the liquidator to restart the entire process of Private Sale after issuing an open notice to prospective buyers instead of confining the process to those parties who had participated in the process earlier?

Holding of the Supreme Court:

The Supreme Court expounded the following holdings on the aforementioned issues:

  • On a conjoint reading of various provisions of the IBC and Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (Liquidation Process) Regulations, 2016 (“Liquidation Regulations”), the liquidator is authorised to sell the immovable and movable property of CD in liquidation through a public auction or a private contract, either collectively, or in a piecemeal manner.
  • The liquidator can apply to the NCLT for appropriate orders and directions considered necessary for the liquidation of the CD.
  • The liquidator is permitted to consult with the stakeholders who are entitled to a distribution of the sale proceeds. However, the proviso to Section 35(2) of the IBC makes it clear that the opinion of the stakeholders will not be binding on the liquidator. Though the advice offered is not binding on the liquidator, he must give reasons in writing for acting against such advice.
  • Regulation 33 of the Liquidation Regulations is couched in a language that shows that ample latitude has been given to the liquidator, who may “ordinarily” sell the assets through auction, thereby meaning that, in peculiar facts and circumstances, the liquidator may directly go in for a private sale.
  • The liquidator can approach the NCLT in terms of Section 35(1)(n), IBC read with Regulation 33(2) of the Liquidation Regulations to seek permission to sell the assets of the CD through Private Sale.
  • The issuance of the Anchor Bid Document does not create any binding obligations on the liquidator to proceed with the sale of the assets of the CD; the Anchor Bid Document does not constitute an offer, a commitment or an assurance of the Liquidator. It is a well-settled principle that in matters relating to commercial transactions, tenders, etc., the scope of judicial review is fairly limited, and the court ought to refrain from substituting its decisions for those of the tendering agency.
  • The Swiss Challenge Process is just another method of private participation that has been recognised by this Court for its transparency. Ultimately, the IBC has left it to the discretion of the liquidator to explore the best possible method for selling the assets of the CD in liquidation, which includes a private sale through direct negotiations with the object of maximising the value of the assets offered for sale.
  • IBC enjoins the liquidator to sell the immovable and movable assets of the CD in a manner that would result in maximisation of value, lead to a higher and quicker recovery for the stakeholders, cut short the delay, and afford a guaranteed timeline for completion of the process.
  • IBC empowers the liquidator to take an independent decision for the sale of the assets of the CD in liquidation.

Based on the above observations and holding, the Supreme Court ruled in R.K. Industries (Unit-II) LLP[11] that there was good reason for the liquidator to have halted the Second Swiss Challenge Process midstream and approached the NCLT armed with an offer of Rs. 675 crores received from Welspun, who had shown interest in the composite sale of the Dahej assets. The Supreme Court added that the Appellant was not able to demonstrate that the decision of the liquidator to discontinue the Second Swiss Challenge Process and go in for a private sale through direct negotiations with prospective bidders was a mala fide exercise.

The Supreme Court went on to state that from a reference to the Anchor Bid Document, it was apparent and explicit that even if the public auction had been completed and the respondent was the highest bidder, no right had accrued to him till the confirmation letter had been issued to him. The Court added that the decision taken by the liquidator cannot be treated as arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable for interference by the Supreme Court and that it is a purely commercial decision centred on the best interest of the stakeholders. The stakeholders have unanimously endorsed the view of the liquidator, and thus it was not for this Court to undertake a further scrutiny of the desirability or the reasonableness of the said decision or substitute its own views for those of the liquidator.

As a result, the impugned NCLAT[12] judgment was quashed and set aside to the extent that it modified the NCLT[13] order and directed restraining of the private sale process. The Supreme Court also ruled that the liquidator should proceed with the private sale of the CD’s composite assets without further delay and conclude it as soon as possible. All the eligible bidders who have made Earnest Money Deposits would be entitled to participate in the negotiations to be conducted by the liquidator for privately selling the consolidated assets of the CD. The Supreme Court concluded that the liquidator must bring the process of private negotiations to a logical conclusion and close it within four weeks of its order.

Conclusion

The wide amplitude of the liquidator’s powers to determine the mode of sale has been fortified in R.K. Industries (Unit-II) LLP. This decision of the Supreme Court has also been followed recently in Sauria Corporation vs. Kohinoor Pulp & Paper Private Limited[14], wherein the NCLT stated that “it is the Liquidator who has to take a call on what mode of sale is in the best interest of maximization of the value of the assets. He may not be bound by the recommendations or advice of the Stakeholder’ Consultation Committee, however, in exercising the process of consultation, if something better transpires, he can take that into consideration.

R.K. Industries (Unit-II) LLP’s decision has made it lucid that a liquidator is armed with powers to determine the mode, method and manner of sale of assets in liquidation and is not bound by the advice of stakeholders. Also, the Supreme Court is attempting to exercise minimal judicial intervention in matters pertaining to the IBC and has historically allowed the CoC and liquidators to exercise their commercial wisdom in matters relating to CIRP and liquidation of a CD. However, it is pertinent to note, the judiciary has also made it crystal clear that it will intervene in cases where the decision(s) of the CoC or the liquidator, among other things, are tainted with arbitrariness, capriciousness, or are unreasonable. R.K. Industries (Unit-II) LLP is yet another step to ensure that the process under the IBC is conducted efficiently and in a time-bound manner to ensure that the stakeholders get maximum value from assets under liquidation.

[1] 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1124.

[1] Section 33 of IBC.

[2] Section 34(2) of IBC.

[3] Section 35 of IBC.

[4] Constituted under Regulation 31A of Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (Liquidation Process) Regulations, 2016.

[5] 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1124.

[6] R.K. Industries (Unit-II) LLP vs. H.R. Commercials Private Limited and Others, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1124.

[7] A Swiss Challenge is a method of bidding, often used in public projects, in which an interested party initiates a proposal for a contract or the bid for a project. The government then puts the details of the project out in the public and invites proposals from others interested in executing it. On the receipt of these bids, the original contractor gets an opportunity to match the best bid (Aarati Krishnan, All you wanted to know about…Swiss Challenge The Hindu BusinessLine (2018), https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/columns/slate/all-you-wanted-to-know-about-swiss-challenge/article24194034.ece (last visited Sep 19, 2022)).

[8] R.K. Industries (Unit-II) LLP vs. H.R. Commercials Private Limited and Others, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1124, para 2 and 3.

[9] R.K. Industries (Unit-II) LLP vs. H.R. Commercials Private Limited and Others, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1124.

[10] R.K. Industries (Unit-II) LLP vs. H.R. Commercials Private Limited and Others, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1124, para 27.

[11] R.K. Industries (Unit-II) LLP vs. H.R. Commercials Private Limited and Others, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1124, para 54.   

[12] Order dated 10 December, 2021 in IA No. 273 of 2021.

[13] Order dated 16 August, 2021.

[14] Order dated August 31, 2022 in I.A (IB) No. 892/KB/2022 in C.P. (IB) No. 511/KB/2018, National Company Law Tribunal – Kolkata Bench-I.

The decision has made it lucid that a liquidator is armed with powers to determine the mode, method and manner of sale of assets in liquidation and is not bound by the advice of stakeholders. Also, the Supreme Court is attempting to exercise minimal judicial intervention in matters pertaining to the IBC and has historically allowed the CoC and liquidators to exercise their commercial wisdom in matters relating to CIRP and liquidation of a CD. 

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Preserving Equality in Online Education

The silver bullet of technology has not only managed to pierce sectors like finance, law, healthcare, etc. but also the predominantly conservative sector of education. Pandemic was the catalyst for steering a range of investments and innovation in the online learning space. Not surprisingly, the industry is set to grow by $2.28 billion during 2022-2026, progressing at a CAGR of 19.50% during the forecast period.[1]

The rapid adoption and need of online education platforms have inspired pedagogical approaches to make tech-based education more engaging and interactive. It is anticipated that integration of blockchain, gamification, artificial intelligence, immersive technologies, learning analytics, etc. will make the online learning experience more adaptative and personalised to the needs of each individual student.

While the world of virtual education may have opened lucrative avenues, its impact dwells differently on students, teachers, schools, parents, and the industry as a whole. 

 

Supreme Court’s View on Online Education

During the pandemic, schools switched to the digital medium, and as such, the right to education was virtually denied to children belonging to the disadvantaged group (DG) or economically weaker section (EWS). The Supreme Court, headed by a three-judge bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Vikram Nath and B.V. Nagarathna in October 2021, stated that the digital divide, against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic, has produced “stark consequences.”

The top court was hearing a plea by the Action Committee on Unaided Recognised Private Schools in connection with the access to technology by children who are attending online classes and the funding needed for the same. It was a petition filed by the private school managements challenging the Delhi High Court order of September 2020 directing them to provide their 25% quota of EWS/DG students online facilities free of charge. The High Court had said that the schools could get themselves reimbursed from the government.

The Delhi government appealed to the Supreme Court against the High Court’s order, saying it had no resources to reimburse the school for the online gadgets. Though the Supreme Court had stayed the High Court order in February 2021, the bench led by Justice Chandrachud said both the Centre and states like Delhi could not bow out of their responsibilities towards young children.

The court observed that the disparity exposed by online classes had been heart-rending. The technology gap caused by online classes defeated the fundamental right of every poor child to study in mainstream schools. The court also ruled that the right to education for little children hinged on who could afford gadgets for online classes and who could not. Many students had to take temporary breaks, and in the worst case, drop out, due to a lack of resources to access the internet, for online education as their families could not afford them. Moreover, the risk of the children, who dropped out of school, being drawn into child labour or child trafficking was high. The needs of young children, who are the future of the country, cannot be ignored, it said. Though schools were gradually opening due to the receding curve of the pandemic, the need to provide adequate computer-based equipment and access to online facilities for children is of utmost importance.

The needs of young children who represent the future of the nation cannot simply be ignored. A solution must be devised at all levels of Government – State and Centre to ensure that adequate facilities are made available to children across social strata so that access to education is not denied to those who lack resources. Otherwise, the entire purpose of the Right to Education Act, allowing EWS students to learn alongside mainstream students even in unaided schools, will be defeated.

The court further held that Article 21A (the right to free and compulsory education for children aged between 6 and 14) must be a reality. It directed the Delhi government to develop a plan to help children in the EWS category and added that the Centre and State governments should jointly work to develop a realistic and lasting solution to ensure children are not denied education due to lack of resources. The said bench further said: “It is necessary for the Delhi government to come with a plan to uphold the salutary objective of the RTE Act. Centre to also coordinate with state governments and share concurrent responsibilities for the purposes of funding.”

It also appreciated the Delhi High Court’s order directing the Delhi government to provide computer-based equipment and an internet package free of cost to EWS children in private and government schools. The Bench asked the Delhi Government to come out with a plan to effectuate the ‘salutary object’ upheld in the High Court’s decision. The court said the Centre should join in the consultations. The issues raised in the present proceedings will not only cover unaided schools but also government and aided schools. The Bench issued notice in the private school’s management petition and ordered it to be tagged with the pending Delhi Government petition.

 

Guidelines for Digital Education

COVID 19 accelerated the adoption of technology and brought about a dynamic shift in the sector. However, it was also realised that technology may improve the quality of dissemination of education; but it can never replace the classroom teaching and learning experience. While adopting the blended and hybrid model of education, a balance needs to be struck in learning and taking advantage of technology, and helping children become socially and emotionally healthy individuals and responsible citizens.

Bearing that in mind, Pragyata Guidelines for Digital Education were released by the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s Department of School Education and Literacy. At the beginning of the academic year 2021-22, the school education department informed all the schools to follow these guidelines while conducting online classes. According to the guidelines, the maximum screen time per day for kindergarten/preschool students has been limited to 45 minutes. However, for classes 1 to 5, schools can conduct two sessions of 1.5 hours per day for not more than 5 days in a week. For classes 6 to 8, screen time has been limited to 2 hours and for classes 9 to 12, limited to a maximum of 3 hours per day.

 

The Two Sides of Online Learning

Online classes offer a comfortable learning environment for students and offer tremendous growth opportunities, but it does instil a sense of isolation. Students, especially those belonging to younger age groups, thrive in a socially simulated environment. However, given the set-up of online classes, children fail to develop the ability to identify social norms and etiquettes. Further, online classes also limit the time and attention teachers can extend to their students. As a consequence, students that require extra attention and guidance fail to perform well. Also, online education may be accessible, but it is not affordable. Virtual learning requires expensive gadgets like computers, laptops, tablets, or smartphones. Hence, students in the economically weaker sections are left behind.

On the plus side, exhaustion and added costs of commuting are avoided in online education. In addition, online learning platforms offers a variety of courses and programmes that empower students to explore opportunities outside the realm of their curriculum. Moreover, since it is not possible for teachers to constantly monitor the activities of all students, online classes instil a sense of responsibility and self-discipline in them as they are made to realise that their actions and negligence will have a long-term impact on their future.

Mapping and understanding the positives and negatives of online education will enable educational institutes and the ed-tech industry to pioneer strategies for more efficient delivery of education. At the same time, the legislature must take a pro-active stance in ensuring that the fundamental right to education is protected in all manner and forms without any compromise on the well-being of learners.

During the pandemic, schools switched to the digital medium, and as such, the right to education was virtually denied to children belonging to the disadvantaged group (DG) or economically weaker section (EWS). The Supreme Court, headed by a three-judge bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Vikram Nath and B.V. Nagarathna in October 2021, stated that the digital divide, against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic, has produced “stark consequences.”

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Validity of an Arbitration Clause: No Strait-Jacket Formula

On September 7, 2022, the Hon’ble Supreme Court issued a significant ruling in the case of Babanrao Rajaram Pund v. Samarth Builders & Developers[1], holding that no strait jacket formula can be made under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, to determine the particulars of an arbitration clause. It further held that an arbitration clause must be treated as final and binding even if specific words like “final” or “binding” are not used in such a clause.

Babanrao Rajaram Pund v. Samarth Builders & Developers

The case related to one Babanrao (the Appellant), who was the owner of a property situated in Aurangabad. The Appellant intended to build residential and commercial complexes on this property. Samarth Builders & Developers (Respondent No. 1), a company specialising in the building of homes and commercial buildings, learned of the Appellant’s intention to build such a residential and commercial complex and approached him. A “Development Agreement” (DA) was subsequently signed by the Appellant and Respondent No.1. The Appellant, thereafter, signed a General Power of Attorney (GPA) in favour of Respondent No. 1.  Respondent No. 2, in the civil appeal was the partner of Respondent No. 1.

According to the DA, Respondent No.1 had to build “Amay Apartments” on the property within 15 months. However, this deadline could have been extended with the payment of a penalty. Respondent No. 1 accepted the conditions of the DA and stated that he would build 45 percent of the constructed space before or on the deadline of the 15-month period, retaining the other 55 percent of the developed section for himself.

Respondent No.1 was, however, unable to finish the work within the allotted time. Aggrieved by this act, the Appellant gave notice to terminate the DA and to cancel the GPA. On 11.07.2016 the cancellation of the agreement and GPA were also publicised in a newspaper by the Appellant. Since, Respondent No.1 did not respond to the notice of the Appellant issued under Clause 18 of the DA, which carried an arbitration clause, the Appellant was constrained to approach the High Court.

Clause 18 of the DA reads as follows:

“18. All the disputes or differences arising between the parties hereto as to the interpretation of this Agreement or any covenants or conditions thereof or as to the rights, duties, or liabilities of any part hereunder or as to any act, matter, or thing arising out of or relating to or under this Agreement (even though the Agreement may have been terminated), the same shall be referred to arbitration by a sole arbitrator mutually appointed, failing which, two arbitrators, one to be appointed by each party to the dispute or difference, and these two Arbitrators will appoint a third Arbitrator and the Arbitration shall be governed by the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 or any re-enactment thereof.”

The Arbitration Clause

Before the Hon’ble High Court of Bombay, the Appellant had filed an application pursuant to Section 11 of the Arbitration Act, 1996, after receiving no response from the Respondents. The Respondents claimed that clause 18 of the DA could not be enforced because it lacked the precise phrase “to be bound by the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal.” The Hon’ble High Court ruled in favour of the Respondents and determined that the clause lacked necessary components of a legitimate arbitration agreement and did not expressly specify that the arbitrator’s ruling would be binding. Aggrieved by the order of the High Court, a Special Leave Petition was filed by the Appellant before the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

The Issue Before the Hon’ble Supreme Court

If an arbitration clause lacks specific language like “binding” or “final,” should it still be considered a valid agreement for the purpose of invoking powers under Sec. 11 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996?

While analysing the issue, the Hon’ble Supreme Court made it clear that there is no precise form of an arbitration clause, and that Section 7 of the Arbitration Act of 1996 does not provide a specific form of arbitration agreement. The Hon’ble Supreme Court critically analysed Clause 18 of the DA and concluded that the terms of the agreement were clear. It made it clear that the term “disputes shall be” referred to arbitration, meant that the reference to arbitration was clear in the DA. Additionally, it was also observed that the contract contained clear instructions for choosing a third arbitrator and that the parties would be subject to the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996. The Hon’ble Supreme Court further opined that the requirement and purpose of the parties to be bound by the arbitral tribunal are mandated by Clause 18 of the DA. The arbitral clause was held to be not invalidated by the omission of the phrases “final” and “binding.” The decision of the Hon’ble High Court of Judicature of Bombay was thus set aside by the Hon’ble Supreme Court and a sole arbitrator was appointed to resolve the dispute.

Key Takeaway

Though, the decision by the Hon’ble Supreme Court gives considerable breathing room for an arbitration clause, it is imperative to consider that an insufficiently written arbitration clause does hinder the process of arbitration. The only solution in such a scenario is to fix the deficiency in the arbitral clause. The parties must ensure that the arbitration agreement is well drafted so that there are no errors and the intention of the parties to refer the dispute to arbitration can be easily inferred. This will also ensure that the parties will not be forced to approach the courts to determine the validity of the clause.

References: 

[1] 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1165.

The only solution in such a scenario is to fix the deficiency in the arbitral clause. The parties must ensure that the arbitration agreement is well drafted so that there are no errors and the intention of the parties to refer the dispute to arbitration can be easily inferred. 

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Public Interest Litigation: A Knight in Shining Armour

The Preamble of our Indian constitution envisages ‘Justice for all’, amongst other tenets. Indian judiciary in the recent past has traversed an unbeaten road. From being the guardian of the interests of an individual, to enabling the recognition of public interest as mode of entrusting locus standi on an individual for securing fundamental rights entrenched in the constitution, the seventy-two odd glorifying years of the judiciary are marked by many momentous instances.

“Public interest” denotes the interest of the people of the land. These interests can be allied in varied directions. All in all, one that integrates itself with the obligations and rights laid out in the grundnorm, represents the public interest. With changing times, fluidity in the interpretation of the term “public interest” has also been under continuous deliberation and interpretation. Since an issue of public interest, denotes a collective representation of opinions, concerns and beliefs; one citizen or person, belonging to the aggrieved class, should not be made a sole party to the dispute. A blow to the public interest hits each and every class of citizens.[1] Therefore, representation by one, as a sentry for the protection of the public interest, denotes a new form of litigation, conceptualised as “public interest litigation”.[2]

 

Public Interest Litigation: Origin and Constitutional Aspects 

A result of outstanding debt, Public interest litigation was envisaged under the Constitution with a vision of bringing the people of India at parity with each other.[3] The marginalised sections of society have always dithered before striking the portals of the court for the establishment of their rights and obligations.[4] In such a scenario, the conventional rules of locus standi were appropriately bent by the Indian Courts to pursue the cause of justice for all and sundry.[5] Justice is not only essential for pursuing the entrenched precepts of the Indian Constitution, but also for harmonization and integration of the streams of human rights, which have latterly enveloped the course of rights-based litigation in India.[6] Therefore, an increase in the panoply of human rights, provides yet another rationale for the growth of public interest litigation in India. The executives and the legislature have been endowed with a quintessential role in the Indian Constitution. Article 12 of the Indian Constitution requires them not to pass laws that impede the attainment of fundamental rights. Recourse to the judiciary in achieving the mandates of the constitution and upholding the status of fundamental rights is in itself qualified as a fundamental right. Such being the case, the Indian judiciary introduced the concept of public interest litigation to provide an answer to the conundrum facing the ailing state functionaries.

With a spurt in these lawsuits, Indian courts have cautiously attempted to lay out guidelines for how such litigation can be pursued. Not every lis draws public interest. As a result, under the guise of public interest, lis fails to provide a suitable remedy to the needy. The Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution and the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution have held that they have the power to entertain public interest litigation.[7] So much so that Courts under Articles 32 and 226 have, in furtherance of the public interest, treated a private interest case as a public interest case.[8] Both Article 32 and Article 226, vouch for an inquiry into locus standi.[9] This conventional rule of standing has been diluted to give way to class actions.[10] In public interest litigation, unlike a traditional dispute resolution mechanism, there is no determination of individual rights.[11] The compulsion for the judicial innovation of the technique of public interest litigation arises out of the constitutional promise of a social and economic transformation to usher in a welfare state.[12] 

 

Judicial Interpretation of Public Interest Litigation

Article 32 of the Constitution represents the heart and soul of this foundational document. The Indian Supreme Court has made a concerted effort to improve judicial access for the masses by relaxing the traditional rule of locus standi.[14], and it has allowed human rights organizations to intervene on behalf of victims, where it has determined that questions of broader public interest necessitate such intervention.[15] In Prem Shankar Shukla v. Delhi Administration,[16] a prisoner sent a telegram to a judge complaining of forced handcuff on him and demanded implicit protection against humiliation and torture. The court gave necessary directions by relaxing the strict rule of locus standi. 

In Municipal Council, Ratlam v. Vardhichand & Others,[17] Krishna Iyer, J. while relaxing the rule of locus standi, the Apex Court held that “ The truth is that a few profound issues of processual jurisprudence of great strategic significance to our legal system face us and we must zero-in on them as they involve problems of access to justice for the people beyond the blinkered rules of ‘standing’ of British Indian vintage. If the center of gravity of justice is to shift, as the Preamble to the Constitution mandates, from the traditional individualism of locus standi to the community orientation of public interest litigation, these issues must be considered… Why drive common people to public interest action? Where Directive Principles have found statutory expression in Do’s and Don’ts the court will not sit idly by and allow municipal government to become a statutory mockery. The law will be relentlessly enforced and the plea of poor finance will be poor alibi when people in misery cry for justice.” Justice Bhagwati of the Supreme Court in his judgment in S.P. Gupta v. President of India & Others,[18] altogether dismissed the traditional rule of standing and in its place, the Court prescribed the modern rule on standing while holding that “where a legal wrong or a legal injury is caused to a person or to a determinate class of persons by reason of violation of any constitutional or legal right or any burden is imposed in contravention of any constitutional or legal provision or without authority of law or any such legal wrong or legal injury or illegal burden is threatened and such person or determinate class of persons is by reason of poverty, helplessness or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position, unable to approach the Court for relief, any member of the public can maintain an application for an appropriate direction, order or writ, in the High Court under Article 226, and in case of breach of any fundamental right, in this Court under Article 32.”

Indian Courts have become so inclined towards accepting litigation involving public interest that they have maintained relaxed procedural norms to entertain writs for continuing such litigations.[19] In Sheela Barse v. State of Maharashtra,[20] Sheela Barse, a journalist, complained of custodial violence against women prisoners in Bombay. Her letter was treated as a writ petition and the directions were given by the court. In Dr. Upendra Baxi (I) v. State of Uttar Pradesh & Another,[21] two distinguished law Professors of the Delhi University addressed a letter to this court regarding inhuman conditions that were prevalent in the Agra Protective Home for Women. The court heard the petition for a number of days and gave important directions by which the living conditions of the inmates were significantly improved in the Agra Protective Home for Women. 

In Labourers Working on Salal Hydro Project v. State of Jammu & Kashmir & Others,[22] on the basis of a news item in the Indian Express regarding the condition of the construction workers, the Court took notice and observed that construction work is hazardous employment and no child below the age of 14 years shall be employed in such work by reason of the prohibition enacted in Article 24. It also held that this constitutional prohibition must be enforced by the Central Government. In Paramjit Kaur (Mrs.) v. State of Punjab & Others,[23] a telegram was sent to a Judge of the Apex Court which was treated as a habeas corpus petition. The allegation was that the husband of the appellant was kidnapped by some people in police uniform from a busy residential area of Amritsar. The Court took serious note of it and directed that the investigation of the case be handled by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

 

Public Interest Litigations sans the Public Interest 

Though, the Indian Courts have entertained public interest litigation in the recent past, in a plethora of cases they have also shut the portals of the Courts to those who have come with unclean hands to avenge themselves in the guise of public interest litigation. In BALCO Employees’ Union (Regd.) v. Union of India & Others[24], the Court recognized that there have been, in recent times, increasing instances of abuse of public interest litigation. Accordingly, the Court has devised a number of strategies to ensure that the attractive brand name of public interest litigation is not used for suspicious products of mischief. 

Firstly, the Supreme Court has limited standing in public interest litigation to individuals “acting bonafide”. Secondly, it has sanctioned the imposition of “exemplary costs” as a deterrent against frivolous and vexatious public interest litigations. Thirdly, instructions have been issued to the High Courts to be more selective in entertaining public interest litigations. 

In S.P. Gupta v. President of India & Others,[25] the Court has found that this liberal standard makes it critical to limit standing to individuals “acting bona fide”. To avoid entertaining frivolous and vexatious petitions under the guise of public interest litigation, the Court has excluded two groups of persons from obtaining standing in public interest litigation petitions. First, the Supreme Court has rejected awarding standing to “meddlesome interlopers.” Second, it has denied standing to interveners bringing public interest litigation for personal gain. Further, the court cautioned that important jurisdiction of public interest litigation may be confined to legal wrongs and legal injuries for a group of people or a class of persons. It should not be used for individual wrongs because individuals can always seek redressal from legal aid organizations. This is a matter of prudence and not a rule of law. 

In Chhetriya Pardushan Mukti Sangharsh Samiti v. State of U.P & Others[26], the Court withheld standing from the applicant on grounds that the applicant brought the suit motivated by enmity between the parties. The Court again, in this case, emphasized that Article 32 is a great and salutary safeguard for the preservation of the fundamental rights of the citizens. The superior Courts have to ensure that this weapon under Article 32 should not be misused or abused by any individual or organization.  In Neetu v. State of Punjab & Others[27], the Court concluded that it is necessary to impose exemplary costs to ensure that the message goes in the right direction and that petitions filed with an oblique motive do not have the approval of the Courts. In S.P. Anand v. H.D. Deve Gowda & Others[28], the Court warned that it is of the utmost importance that those who invoke the jurisdiction of this Court seeking a waiver of the locus standi rule must exercise restraint in moving the Court by not plunging into areas wherein they are not well-versed. 

In Sanjeev Bhatnagar v. Union of India & Others[29], this Court went a step further by imposing a monetary penalty of Rs10,000/- against an Advocate for filing a frivolous and vexatious petition. The Court found that the petition was devoid of public interest, and instead labelled it as “publicity interest litigation”.. In Dattaraj Nathuji Thaware v. State of Maharashtra & Others[30], the Supreme Court affirmed the High Court’s monetary penalty against a member of the Bar for filing a public interest litigation petition on the same grounds. The Court found that the petition was nothing but a camouflage to foster personal dispute. Observing that no one should be permitted to bring disgrace to the noble profession, the Court concluded that the imposition of the penalty of Rs. 25,000 by the High Court was appropriate. Evidently, the Supreme Court has set a clear precedent validating the imposition of monetary penalties against frivolous and vexatious public interest petitions, especially when filed by Advocates. The Court expressed its anguish on misuse of the forum of the Court under the garb of public interest litigation and observed that public interest litigation is a weapon which has to be used with great care and circumspection and the judiciary has to be extremely alert in ascertaining the true intentions behind the beautiful veil of social justice.  

The Court must not allow its process to be abused for oblique considerations. In Charan Lal Sahu & Others v. Giani Zail Singh & Another[31], the Supreme Court observed that “we would have been justified in passing a heavy order of costs against the two petitioners” for filing “a light-hearted and indifferent” public interest litigation petition. However, to prevent “nipping in the bud a well-founded claim on a future occasion” the Court opted against imposing monetary costs on the petitioners. In this case, this Court concluded that the petition was careless, meaningless, clumsy and against the public interest. Therefore, the Court ordered the Registry to initiate prosecution proceedings against the petitioner under the Contempt of Courts Act. Additionally, the court forbade the Registry from entertaining any future public interest litigation petitions filed by the petitioner, who was an Advocate in this case.

In J. Jayalalitha v. Government of Tamil Nadu & Others[32], the Court laid down that public interest litigation can be filed by any person challenging the misuse or improper use of any public property including the political party in power for the reason that interest of individuals cannot be placed above or preferred to a larger public interest. In Holicow Pictures Pvt. Ltd. v. Prem Chandra Mishra & Others[33], the Court observed that “It is depressing to note that on account of such trumpery proceedings initiated before the Courts, innumerable days are wasted, the time which otherwise could have been spent for disposal of cases of the genuine litigants. Though we spare no efforts in fostering and developing the laudable concept of public interest litigation and extending our long arm of sympathy to the poor, the ignorant, the oppressed and the needy, whose fundamental rights are  infringed and violated and whose grievances go unnoticed, un-represented and unheard; yet we cannot avoid but express our opinion that while genuine litigants with legitimate grievances relating to civil matters involving properties worth hundreds of millions of rupees and criminal cases in which persons sentenced to death facing gallows under untold agony and persons sentenced to life imprisonment and kept in incarceration for long years, persons suffering from undue delay in service matters -government or private, persons awaiting the disposal of cases wherein huge amounts of public revenue or unauthorized collection of tax amounts are locked up, detenu expecting their release from the detention orders etc. etc. are all standing in a long serpentine queue for years with the fond hope of getting into the Courts and having their grievances redressed, the busybodies, meddlesome interlopers, wayfarers or officious interveners having absolutely no public interest except for personal gain or private profit either of themselves or as a proxy of others or for any other extraneous motivation or for glare of publicity break the queue muffing their faces by wearing the mask of public interest litigation and get into the Courts by filing vexatious and frivolous petitions and thus criminally waste the valuable time of the Courts and as a result of which the queue standing outside the doors of the Courts never moves, which piquant situation creates frustration in the minds of the genuine litigants and resultantly they lose faith in the administration of our judicial system.”

The Court has to be satisfied with:

(a) the credentials of the applicant;

(b) the prima facie correctness or nature of the information given by him;

(c) the information being not vague and indefinite.

The information should show the gravity and seriousness involved. Court has to strike balance between two conflicting interests;

(i) nobody should be allowed to indulge in wild and reckless allegations besmirching the character of others; and

(ii) avoidance of public mischief and avoid mischievous petitions seeking to assail, for oblique motives, justifiable executive actions.

The Courts also have to practice great caution in ensuring that while redressing a public grievance, it does not encroach upon the sphere reserved by the Constitution to the Executive and the Legislature, while maintaining a balance while dealing with imposters and busybodies or meddlesome interlopers impersonating as public-spirited holy men. In Janata Dal v. H.S. Chowdhary & Others[34], the court rightly cautioned that the expanded role of courts in the modern `social’ state demands greater judicial responsibility. In Guruvayur Devaswom Managing Committee & Another v. C.K. Rajan & Others [35], it was reiterated that the Court must ensure that its process is not abused. Therefore, the Court would be justified in insisting on furnishing of security before granting an injunction in appropriate cases. The Courts may impose heavy costs to ensure that the judicial process is not misused.

The bandwagon of public interest litigation has attained new heights in the recent past. With all the parameters drawn by Courts to adjudge what constitutes litigation related to the public interest, still, with blindfolded certainty; it cannot be said that a strait jacketed formula would serve as a panacea for all vexatious litigants to sieve through. With the Courts, always loaded with backlogs, the utopian dream of ‘justice for all” and in the “interest of all,” might straddle.

References: 

[1] (Traditionally used to the adversary system, we search for individual persons aggrieved. But a new class of litigation public interest litigation- where a section or whole of the community is involved (such as consumers’ organisations or NAACP-National Association for Advancement of Coloured People-in America), emerges in a developing country like ours, this pattern of public oriented litigation better fulfils the rule of law if it is to run close to the rule of life…The possible apprehension that widening legal standing with a public connotation may unloose a flood of litigation which may overwhelm the judges is misplaced because public resort to court to suppress public mischief is a tribute to the justice system.) Bar Council of Maharashtra v. M. V. Dabholkar & Others, 1976 SCR 306.

[2] (Our current processual jurisprudence is not of individualistic Anglo-Indian mould. It is broad-based and people-oriented, and envisions access to justice through `class actions’, `public interest litigation’, and `representative proceedings’. Indeed, little Indians in large numbers seeking remedies in courts through collective proceedings, instead of being driven to an expensive plurality of litigations, is an affirmation of participative justice in our democracy. We have no hesitation in holding that the narrow concepts of `cause of action’, `person aggrieved’ and individual litigation are becoming obsolescent in some jurisdictions.) Akhil Bharatiya Soshit Karamchari Sangh (Railway) v. Union of India & Others, AIR 1981 SC 298.

[3] (Public Interest Law is the name that has recently been given to efforts to provide legal representation to previously unrepresented groups and interests. Such efforts have been undertaken in the recognition that ordinary market place for legal services fails to provide such services to significant segments of the population and to significant interests. Such groups and interests
 include the proper environmentalists, consumers, racial and ethnic minorities and others.) M/s Holicow Pictures Pvt. Ltd. v. Prem Chandra Mishra & Ors., AIR 2008 SC 913.

[4] (Public interest litigation is a cooperative or collaborative effort by the petitioner, the State of public authority and the judiciary to secure observance of constitutional or basic human rights, benefits and privileges upon poor, downtrodden and vulnerable sections of the society.) People’s Union for Democratic Rights & Others v. Union of India & Others, (1982) 3 SCC 235. 

[5] (Public interest litigation is part of the process of participative justice and `standing’ in civil litigation of that pattern must have liberal reception at the judicial doorsteps.) Fertilizer Corporation Kamagar Union Regd., Sindri & Others v. Union of India & Others, AIR 1981 SC 844.

[6] (Public interest litigation is for making basic human rights meaningful to the deprived and vulnerable sections of the community and to assure them social, economic and political justice.) Ramsharan Autyanuprasi & Another v. Union of India & Others, AIR 1989 SC 549.

[7] (The Court has all incidental and ancillary powers including the power to forge new remedies and fashion new strategies designed to enforce the fundamental rights.) M. C. Mehta & Another v. Union of India & Others, AIR 1987 SC 1086.

[8] Indian Banks Association v. Devkala Consultancy Service, AIR 2004 SC 2815.

[9] (Any person claiming of infraction of any fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution is at a liberty to move to the Supreme Court, but the rights that could be invoked under Article 32 must ordinarily be the rights of the person who complains of the infraction of such rights and approaches the Court for relief.) Narinderjit Singh Sahni v. Union of India, AIR 2001 SC 3810; see also Ruqmani v. Achuthan, AIR 1991 SC 983; see also Delhi Administration v. Madan Lal Nangia, AIR 2003 SC 4672.

[10] (The law as to locus standi has been diluted by the advent of the doctrine of public interest litigation.) Bangalore Medical Trust v. Muddappa, AIR 1991 SC 1902.

[11] (The traditional rule is flexible enough to take in those cases where the applicant has been prejudicially affected by an act or omission of an authority, even though he has no proprietary or even a fiduciary interest in the subject-matter. That apart, in exceptional cases even a stranger or a person who was not a party to the proceedings before the authority, but has a substantial and genuine interest in the subject-matter of the proceedings will be covered by this rule.) Jasbhai Motibhai Desai v. Roshan Kumar, Haji Bashir Ahmed & Others, (1976) 1 SCC 671.

[12] (The old doctrine of only relegating the aggrieved to the remedies available in civil law limits the role of the courts too much as protector and guarantor of the indefeasible rights of the citizens. The courts have the obligation to satisfy the social aspirations of the citizens because the courts and the law are for the people and expected to respond to their aspirations.) Smt. Nilabati Behera alias Lalita Behera v. State of Orissa & Others, AIR 1993 SC 1960.

[13] (Today, unfortunately, in our country the poor are priced out of the judicial system with the result that they are losing faith in the capacity of our legal system to (sic) about changes in their life conditions and to deliver justice to them. The poor in their contact with the legal system have always been on the wrong side of the line. They have always come across ‘law for the poor & rather than law of the poor’. The law is regarded by them as something mysterious and forbidding–always taking something away from them and not as a positive and constructive social device for changing the social economic order and improving their life conditions by conferring rights and benefits on them. The result is that the legal system has lost its credibility for the weaker section of the community.) Hussainara Khatoon & Others v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar, Patna AIR 1979 SC 1369.

[14] The Mumbai Kamgar Sabha, Bombay v. Abdulbhai Faizullabhai Others, AIR 1976 SC 1455.

[15] Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration & Others, AIR 1978 SC 1675.

[16] AIR 1980 SC 1535.

[17] AIR 1980 SC 1622.

[18] AIR 1982 SC 149.

[19] (public interest litigation should be encouraged when the Courts are apprised of gross violation of fundamental rights by a group or a class action or when basic human rights are invaded or when there are complaints of such acts as shock the judicial conscience that the courts, especially this Court, should leave aside procedural shackles and hear such petitions and extend its jurisdiction under all available provisions for remedying the hardships and miseries of the needy, the underdog and the neglected.)Shri Sachidanand Pandey & Another v. The State of West Bengal & Others, (1987) 2 SCC 295.

[20] AIR 1983 SC 378.

[21]  1983 (2) SCC 308.

[22] AIR 1984 SC 177.

[23]  (1996) 7 SCC 20.

[24] AIR 2002 SC 350.

[25] AIR 1982 SC 149.

[26] AIR 1990 SC 2060.

[27] AIR 2007 SC 758.

[28] AIR 1997 SC 272.

[29] AIR 2005 SC 2841.

[30] (2005) 1 SCC 590.

[31] AIR 1984 SC 309.

[32]  (1999) 1 SCC 53.

[33] AIR 2008 SC 913.

[34] (1992) 4 SCC 305.

[35] (2003) 7 SCC 546.

 

Image Credits: Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay 

The bandwagon of public interest litigation has attained new heights in the recent past. With all the parameters drawn by Courts to adjudge what constitutes litigation related to the public interest, still, with blindfolded certainty; it cannot be said that a strait jacketed formula would serve as a panacea for all vexatious litigants to sieve through.

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Legal Implications of Offering Gifts to Public Servants

Offering gifts to Public Servants is an act which might call for interference with the provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 (“Act”). Many companies grapple with whether they should be offer gifts to Public Servants as a gesture of celebration during festivals. It is pertinent to note that the concern involved might be looked at from different perspectives. The leitmotif of this piece is to only provide a picture from the standpoint of the Act.

The Act was enacted to eradicate corruption. Section 2 (c) of the Act provides for an elaborate definition of the term “Public Servant”. The definition of the term “Public Servant” has time and again been under wide judicial interpretation. Interestingly, the Act does not define the term bribe, gift or gratification. Instead, the it uses the terminology ‘undue advantage’. The term ‘undue advantage’ is defined under section 2(d) which means “any gratification whatever, other than legal remuneration”. The term “gratification” is not limited to pecuniary gratifications or to gratifications estimable in money. The expression “legal remuneration” is not restricted to remuneration paid to a public servant but includes all remuneration that the public servant is permitted by the Government or the organisation, which he serves, to receive. Therefore, any gift to a Public Servant can qualify as an undue advantage given to him.

Section 7 of the Act provides for punishment to a Public Servant for accepting bribe. The Section provides that obtaining or accepting or attempting to obtain “undue advantage” from any person as a reward or with an intention to perform or cause performance of a public duty improperly or dishonestly or to forbear the performance of any such duty would amount to a punishable offence. It further provides that if a public servant abets any other public servant to perform the aforesaid acts, the said public servant would be liable under the provisions of Section 7. The explanation to Section 7 provides that the act of obtaining or accepting or attempting to obtain any “undue advantage” shall by itself constitute an offence, even if the performance of the public duty by the public servant is not or has not been improper. Thus, the explanation makes it clear that, whether the public servant has discharged the duty improperly or not, he can be prosecuted, if he has obtained or attempted to obtain any undue advantage for the discharge of his official duty.

The Act further provides for the punishment of any person who commits the offence of bribing a public servant. Section 8 of the Act states that any person who gives or promises to give an undue advantage to other person/persons with an intention to induce a public servant to perform improperly, a public duty or to reward such public servant for such improper performance shall be punished with imprisonment or with fine or with both. Further, Section 9 of the Act deals with an offence relating to bribing a public servant by a commercial organization. Under the Section, a commercial organization not only includes a company or partnership incorporated in India and carrying on business in India or outside India, but also a body or partnership incorporated or formed outside India but carrying on business in India. Moreover, Section 9 makes the commercial organization guilty and punishable with a fine if any person(s) associated with them gives/promises to give any undue advantage with the intent to:

  • Obtain/retain any business, or
  • Obtain/retain an advantage in the conduct of business for such a commercial organization.

It is pertinent to note that, under Section 9, it shall be a defence for the commercial organization to prove that it had in place adequate procedures for the compliance of such guidelines as may be prescribed to prevent persons associated with it from undertaking such conduct.

Section 10 of the Act provides that a person in charge of a commercial organization who has committed an offence under section 9 of the Act shall be guilty of the offence and shall be liable to be proceeded against. That is to say that when an offence under Section 9 of the Act is committed by a commercial organization and such offence is proved in the Court to have been committed with the connivance of any director, manager, secretary or another officer of the commercial organization; such director, manager, secretary or another officer shall be guilty of the offence and shall be liable to be proceeded against and shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than three years but which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to a fine.

Having understood the conspectus of sections, it is pertinent to note that gifts given to a public servant might be considered as “undue advantage” under Section 2 (d) of the Act. The term “undue advantage” has been defined in a broad manner under the Act to mean any gratification, other than the entitled legal remuneration. Therefore, gifts which do not form part of the legal remuneration of a Public Servant could be held as an “undue advantage”. In such a case, both the person giving such undue advantage and the Public Servant accepting such undue advantage might be booked under the provisions of the Act. Therefore, in this regard that when it comes to criminal prosecution, both mens rea and actus reus are important to be established. Even if the intention of the person giving such gifts was not to gain any undue benefits from the Public Servant, in deviation of his duty, that would have to be established before a Court of law. Lack of intention would not stop the State authorities to initiate an action under the provisions Act.

Therefore, both people giving gifts to Public Servants and Public Servants accepting gifts are to be cautious of its legal implications.

Image Credits: Photo by Shameer Pk from Pixabay 

The term “undue advantage” has been defined in a broad manner under the Act to mean any gratification, other than the entitled legal remuneration. Therefore, gifts which do not form part of the legal remuneration of a Public Servant could be held as an “undue advantage”. In such a case, both the person giving such undue advantage and the Public Servant accepting such undue advantage might be booked under the provisions of the Act. Therefore, in this regard that when it comes to criminal prosecution, both mens rea and actus reus are important to be established.

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PUFE Transaction Under IBC Vis-À-Vis Real Estate Sector

Since the implementation of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016, (“Code”), the Real Estate Sector has been in turmoil, with many transactions entered into by the Builder(s) undermining and jeopardising the legitimate interests of innocuous creditors. The Code encompasses a collection of transactions that the Interim Resolution Professional (“IRP”) and the liquidator appointed by the National Company Law Tribunal (“NCLT”) for companies in insolvency or liquidation should avoid, as stated below. Preference, Undervalued, Fraudulent, and Extortionate Transactions (“PUFE Transactions”) is how the group of transactions is known. Each of the aforementioned has been examined in relation to the Indian real estate sector in order to advance the conceptual nature.

Understanding PUFE Transactions

 

Preferential Transactions

The factors that may lead to transactions being classified as preferential in character are discussed in Section 43 of the Code. Thus, if specific criteria exist in a set of transactions conducted by the corporate debtor that may be preferential in character, they can only be avoided if the IRP or liquidator files an application with the NCLT.

When a court determines that a transaction was not carried out in the ordinary course of business to create a new value in the corporate debtor’s interest, but instead acted to give preferential advantage to a related party or other parties, the transaction is to be avoided under Section 44 of the Code. Its main goal was to reverse the consequences of preferential transactions by requiring the person who received the preference to refund any profit gained as a result of the preference.

 

Undervalued Transactions

An undervalued transaction occurs when a corporate debtor has the malafide intention of causing a wrongful gain to a linked party or selling assets for a cheap price in a short period of time to boost cash liquidity.

In addition, the time frame for challenging an undervalued transaction has been classified according to whether the party is linked or unrelated. As a result, an undervalued transaction with a ‘related party’ might be called into question two years prior to the start of insolvency proceedings, whilst an undervalued transaction with a ‘unrelated party’ could be called into question one year prior to the start of bankruptcy proceedings.

If the NCLT determines that the transaction was undervalued and that the Resolution Professional (“RP”) or liquidator failed to report it despite having sufficient information or opportunity, the NCLT can order the position to be restored to its pre-transaction state and order the insolvency board to initiate proceedings against the liquidator or RP.

 

Fraudulent Transactions

The Code’s scope and ambit for identifying fraudulent transactions are rather broad in order to protect creditors’ legitimate rights against the corporate debtor. The phrasing used in Section 66(1) of the Code, which deals with deceptive dealing, demonstrates the same. As a result, if the corporate debtor conducted business with the intent to defraud creditors or for any other fraudulent purpose, the NCLT can issue an order directing any individual who was knowingly a party to the corporate debtor’s business conduct to make such contributions to the corporate debtor’s assets as the NCLT deems appropriate during the insolvency process.

While Section 66(2) of the Code covers wrongful trading (i.e., conduct that is not fraudulent but falls short of the standards governing directors’ duty to behave correctly in the case of insolvency), the NLCT has the authority to impose a pecuniary penalty on the director or partner.

 

Extortionate Transactions

Extortionate transactions are covered under Section 50 of the Code, which requires the corporate debtor to make exorbitant payments to any of its creditors in the two years preceding the bankruptcy beginning date. An NCLT order may be used to prevent such transactions. If a person’s debt is in line with the law, this rule does not apply.

The two-year period before the start of bankruptcy is crucial for establishing whether a transaction is excessive.

As a result, before engaging in any transaction, contractual parties and creditors must confirm that they have evaluated the company’s most recent financial status, particularly those involving the transfer of assets or value from such a business, to identify any financial crisis indicators.

 

Analysis

Troubled businesses must be prohibited from engaging in activities that may block creditor recovery if insolvency proceedings were to be commenced. In India, where promoter groups typically control enterprises, such measures are essential. Through opaque arrangements, promoter groups may seek to move income from assets to other group companies for their own benefit. As a result, the NCLT has the jurisdiction under the Code to reverse any such transaction in order to safeguard creditors’ and other stakeholders’ interests.

The case of IDBI Bank Ltd. v. Jaypee Infratech Ltd[1]. (“IDBI”), which was confirmed by the Supreme Court in Jaypee Infratech Ltd. Interim Resolution Professional v. Axis Bank Ltd.[2], is an important precedent for PUFE Transactions.

M/s Jaiprakash Associates (“JAL”) established a special purpose firm, M/s Jaypee Infratech Ltd. (“JIL”), to manage the project design, engineering, development, and construction. JAL controlled 70 percent of JIL’s equity. Significantly, JIL encountered financial difficulties and failed to satisfy contractual deadlines for project completion and debt repayment. As a result, JIL’s account was designated non-performing by the Life Insurance Corporation (“LIC”). Since JIL’s account was deemed non-performing, its financial creditors, including IDBI, filed an application with the NCLT’s Allahabad Bench under Section 7 of the Code, which was granted, and the NCLT appointed an IRP. The IRP filed an application with the NCLT after reviewing the transactions, requesting that they be declared as PUFE Transactions.

According to the NCLT, JIL failed to strive diligently to decrease the creditors’ losses and mortgaged the land without JAL’s counter-guarantee since it completed the series of transactions while in financial distress. JIL had also failed to acquire the essential approvals for the challenged acquisition from the JLF lenders as well as the shareholders. As a result, the NCLT determined that the contested transactions occurred during the relevant period and that they were preferential transactions under Section 43 of the Code.

 

Conclusion

PUFE transactions in the real estate sector have become a threat, and the changes have proven unsuccessful in facilitating the filing of a lawsuit against infrastructure and real estate behemoths. The real estate industry in India is one of the few to have risen at an exponential rate during the previous two decades. It has drawn significant investments from many who have put their life savings into realising their ambitions of buying a home. The most sought-after investment channel, on the other hand, has lost favour owing to stagnation.

On the other hand, a careful examination of the modifications reveals that they are helpful to homebuyers. The amendment to the Code is favourable to buyers who are facing difficulties due to incomplete real estate developments. Homebuyers are affected by project delays since they invest a considerable portion of their cash in a down payment and an EMI on the loan while continuing to pay rent in their current location. This situation has now altered as a result of the recent Code modification.

References:

[1] Company Petition NO.(IB)77/ALD/2017

[2]  Civil Appeal NOS. 8512-8527 OF 2019

Photo by: Tierra Mallorca on Unsplash

PUFE transactions in the real estate sector have become a threat, and the changes have proven unsuccessful in facilitating the filing of a lawsuit against infrastructure and real estate behemoths. The real estate industry in India is one of the few to have risen at an exponential rate during the previous two decades. It has drawn significant investments from many who have put their life savings into realising their ambitions of buying a home. The most sought-after investment channel, on the other hand, has lost favour owing to stagnation.

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