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Understanding Statutory Authority and Sovereign Immunity

  • Statutory authority refers to the power derived directly from the legislature. If a person acts under statutory authority and causes harm to another individual, that action is not considered wrongful, and no legal action can be taken against them.
  • Even if an action would typically be considered a tort, if it is authorized by statutory law, it is not classified as a tort. However, compensation may be provided in certain cases. This authority grants the state and its representatives the ability to act in the interest of public welfare without being held liable for resulting harm.
  • This concept originates from the legal maxim "Rex Non Postest Peccare" (the king can do no wrong), which historically granted sovereign immunity to the ruling monarch in England, absolving the state from liability for actions of its agents.

Reasons for Statutory Authority and Sovereign Immunity

  • Attribute of Sovereignty: The state cannot be sued without its consent, as it is considered a fundamental aspect of its sovereign power.
  • Protection of the Crown's Treasury: Compensatory awards directly impact the state's finances, justifying immunity for actions performed in the interest of public policy.

Application in Indian Courts

  • The Indian judicial system has grappled with the acceptance of claims for damages against the state. While the accident doctrine has been used to deny legitimate claims, the matter is often left to the courts to decide based on constitutional provisions.

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Sovereign Immunity in Pre-Independence India

  • Before independence, British rule in India implemented sovereign immunity to protect the people.
  • In the 1893 case of O. and P. Navigation Company vs. Secretary of State of India, terms like 'sovereign' and 'non-sovereignty' were introduced to determine the liability of the East India Company for torts committed by its servants.
  • C.J. Peacock classified the functions of the East India Company into 'sovereign' and 'non-sovereign immunity', establishing vicarious liability.

Post-Independence Legal Developments

  • In the case of State of Rajasthan vs. Vidyawati, a government servant negligently injured a pedestrian, leading to the court ruling against the state's use of sovereign immunity and requiring compensation for the victim.
  • Conversely, in Kasturi Lal vs. State of U.P., the court viewed the state's sovereign power differently, causing confusion. The Supreme Court differentiated between sovereign and non-sovereign state functions, determining that police abuse falls under state's sovereign immunity, thus relieving the state of liability.

Sovereign and Non-Sovereign Functions of the State

  • The distinction between the sovereign and non-sovereign functions of the state can be challenging to determine clearly.
  • In the Vidyawati case, the court established a clear differentiation.
  • It was emphasized that the state cannot misuse its power under the guise of sovereign immunity.
  • The powers outlined in the Kasturi Lal case were found to be conflicting and rooted in the state's governmental authority.
  • The court expressed dissatisfaction with the laws concerning sovereign immunity, suggesting that the responsibility to address this issue lies with the legislature.

State of Andhra Pradesh v. Challa Ramakrishnan Reddy Case

  • The court ruled that the maxim "the king can do no wrong" or "the crown is not accountable to the people for any violations" does not hold true.

Exemption Choice and Fundamental Rights

  • An exemption choice, even if based on statutory grounds, cannot be invoked in cases of fundamental rights violations.
  • States cannot defend themselves using statutory authority when fundamental rights are at stake.

Procedural Aspect

  • An aggrieved individual can file a petition in a trial court for tortious acts committed by the state.
  • There is no requirement to approach the Supreme Court or High Court under Articles 32 and 226.

Overview of Kasturi Lal Case and Its Implications

  • The court's stance on the Kasturi Lal case suggests that its significance has diminished and does not carry binding authority.
  • Notably, the court did not address situations where violations could occur concerning legal rights other than fundamental rights.
  • If a situation arises where the Kasturi Lal case needs to be overruled, a constitutional bench comprising seven or more judges must make that decision.

Importance of Constitutional Bench Decisions

  • Decisions regarding critical legal matters, especially those with far-reaching implications, often require a constitutional bench consisting of a specific number of judges.
  • Such benches ensure thorough deliberation and a diverse range of perspectives before reaching a conclusive decision.

Question for Statutory Authority as a Defence to Torts
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What is the distinction between sovereign and non-sovereign functions of the state?
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FAQs on Statutory Authority as a Defence to Torts - Civil Law for Judiciary Exams

1. What is statutory authority as a defence to torts?
Ans. Statutory authority as a defence to torts refers to when a defendant argues that their actions, which may have caused harm to another party, were authorized or required by law. This defense is based on the principle that if a statute or regulation permits or mandates certain actions, then the defendant should not be held liable for any resulting harm.
2. How can statutory authority be used as a defence in a tort case?
Ans. In order to use statutory authority as a defence in a tort case, the defendant must demonstrate that their actions were specifically authorized or required by a relevant statute or regulation. They must also show that they were acting in accordance with the provisions of the law at the time of the alleged tortious conduct.
3. What are some examples of statutory authority as a defence to torts?
Ans. Examples of statutory authority as a defence to torts include cases where government officials or agencies are immune from liability for actions taken in accordance with their statutory duties, or where a company is shielded from liability for complying with environmental regulations.
4. Can statutory authority completely absolve a defendant from liability in a tort case?
Ans. While statutory authority can be a strong defence in tort cases, it does not always completely absolve a defendant from liability. Courts will consider factors such as whether the defendant acted in good faith, the extent of the harm caused, and whether there were any alternative courses of action available that would have avoided the harm.
5. How does statutory authority differ from other defences to torts, such as contributory negligence?
Ans. Statutory authority as a defence to torts is based on the argument that the defendant's actions were authorized or required by law, whereas contributory negligence focuses on the plaintiff's own actions contributing to their harm. Statutory authority is a more specific defence that relies on the existence of a relevant statute or regulation, while contributory negligence is a broader concept that looks at the actions of both parties involved in the tort.
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