In English law, natural justice is technical terminology for the rule against bias (nemo iudex in causa sua) and the right to a fair hearing (audi alteram partem). While the term natural justice is often retained as a general concept, it has largely been replaced and extended by the general “duty to act fairly”.
Natural justice is a legal philosophy used in some jurisdictions in the determination of just, or fair, processes in legal proceedings. The concept is very closely related to the principle of natural law which has been applied as a philosophical and practical principle in the law in several common law jurisdictions. Natural justice in essence could just be referred to as ‘Procedural Fairness’, with a purpose of ensuring that decision-making is fair and reasonable. Natural justice must underpin departmental decision-making as those decisions affect the interests of persons or corporations.
According to Roman law certain basic legal principles are required by nature, or are so obvious that they should be applied universally without needing to be enacted into law by a legislator. The rules or principles of natural justice are now regularly applied by the courts in both common law and Roman law jurisdictions. Natural justice operates on the principles that man is basically good, that a person of good intent should not be harmed, and one should treat others as one would like to be treated.
Natural justice includes the notion of procedural fairness and may incorporate the following guidelines:
A person accused of a crime, or at risk of some form of loss, should be given adequate notice about the proceedings (including any charges).
A person making a decision should declare any personal interest they may have in the proceedings.
A person who makes a decision should be unbiased and act in good faith. He therefore can not be one of the parties in the case, or have an interest in the outcome. This is expressed in the latin maxim, nemo judex in sua causa: “no man is permitted to be judge in his own cause”.
Proceedings should be conducted so they are fair to all the parties – expressed in the latin maxim audi alteram partem: “let the other side be heard”.
Each party to a proceeding is entitled to ask questions and contradict the evidence of the opposing party.
A decision-maker should take into account relevant considerations and extenuating circumstances, and ignore irrelevant considerations.
Justice should be seen to be done. If the community is satisfied that justice has been done, they will continue to place their faith in the courts.
Chapter II: Nemo Judex in Causa Sua
Bias means an operative prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious in relation to a party or issue. Such operative prejudice may be the result of a preconceived opinion or a predisposition. Therefore, the rule against bias strikes against those factors which may improperly influence a judge in arriving at a decision in a particular case. The requirement of this principle is that the judge must be impartial and must decide the case objectively on the basis of the evidence on record. A person cannot take an objective decision in a case in which he has an interest, for, as human psychology tells us very rarely can people take decisions against their own interests. Therefore, the maxim that a person cannot be a judge in his own cause. Moreover, “Justice should not only be done but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”. The minimal requirement of natural justice is that the authority must not be biased.
Bias manifests itself variously and may affect decisions in a variety of ways:
(1) Personal Bias- Personal bias arises from a certain relationship equation between the deciding authorities and the parties which incline him unfavourably or otherwise on the side of one of the parties before him.
Mineral Development Corporation Ltd. v State of Bihar is a typical case of personal bias. In this case the petitioners were granted mining license for 99 years in 1947. But in 1953, the secretary of the revenue board sent a notice to petitioners to show cause within 15 days why the licence should not be cancelled for violation of various sections pf mining act. The petitioners submitted a written reply denying the allegations. 2 years later, the government issued notification canceling the licence. The action of the government was challenged on the basis of personal bias. The facts highlighted by the petitioner were as follows.
(i) That Raja Kamakshya Anrain Singh, the owner of the mineral development corporation Ltd had opposed the minister in the general elections.
(ii) That the minister had filed a criminal case under section 500 IPC against the petitioner which was transferred by the High Court of the state of Bihar to Delhi on the ground of political rivalry between the parties.
The court subsequently quashed the order of the government on the basis of personal bias.
In order to challenge administrative action successfully on the ground of personal bias, it is essential to prove that there is a reasonable suspicion of bias or a real likelihood of bias. In this area of bias the real question is not whether a person was biased. It is difficult to prove the state of mind of a person. Therefore, what the courts see is whether there is reasonable ground for believing the question of bias judges have to take into consideration the human possibilities and the ordinary course of human conduct. But there must be a real likelihood of bias rather than just a probability of bias. The apprehension must be judges from a reasonable, healthy and competent point of view.
(2) Pecuniary Bias- Judicial approach is unanimous and decisive on the point that any financial interest, howsoever small it may be, would vitiate administrative action. The disqualification will not be avoided by non-participation of the biased member in the proceedings if he was present when the decision was reached. In Jeejeebhoy v Asstt Collector, Thana the Chief Justice reconstituted the bench when it was found that one of the members of the bench was a member of the co-operative society for which the land had been acquired. The madras high court also quashed the decision of the collector who in his capacity as the chairman of the regional transport authority had granted a permit in favour of a co-operative society of which he was also the chairman.
(3) Subject matter Bias- Those cases fall within this category where the deciding officer is directly, or otherwise, involved in the subject matter of the case. Here again mere involvement would not vitiate the administrative action unless there is a real likelihood of bias.
(4) Departmental Bias- The problem of departmental bias is something which is inherent in the administrative process and if it is not effectively checked, it may negate the very concept of fairness in the administrative proceeding. In Gullapalli Nageswar Rao v APSRTC the petitioners challenged the order of the government nationalizing road transport. One of the grounds for challenge was that the secretary of transport department who gave hearing was biased being the person who initiated the scheme and also being the head of the department whose responsibility it was to execute it. The court quashed the order on the ground that, under the circumstances, the secretary was biased, and hence no fair hearing could be expected. Thereafter, the Act was amended and the function of hearing the objection was given over to the minister concerned.
(5) Preconceived notion Bias- Bias arising out of perceived notions is a very delicate problem of administrative law. On the one hand, no judge as a human being is expected to sit as a blank sheet of paper, on the other, preconceived notions would vitiate a fair trial. In Stevenage case the appellant challenged the stevenage new town designation order, 1946 on the ground that no fair hearing was given because the minister had entertained bias in his determination. Though the court did not accept the challenge on the technical grounds that the minister confirming the report was not any quasi-judicial function, but the problem still remains that the bias arising from strong convictions as to policy may operate as a more serious threat to fair action than any other single factor.
Chapter III: Audi Alteram Partem
One of the objectives of giving a hearing in application of the principles of natural justice is to see that an illegal action or decision does not take place. The principle of audi altarem partem is the basic principle of natural justice. The omni potency inherent in the doctrine is that no one should be condemned unheard. In the field of administrative action, this principle has been applied to ensure fair play and justice to affected persons. The expression audi altarem partem simply implies that a person must be given an opportunity to defend himself. This principle is sine qua non of civilized society. Administrative difficulty in giving notice and hearing to a person cannot provide any justification for depriving the person of an opportunity of being heard. The whole course of decisions beginning with Dr Bentley’s Case  in which the Court of King’s Bench held that the university of Cambridge could not cancel the degree of a great but rebellious scholar without giving him an opportunity to defend himself, firmly establishes that although there may not be a statutory requirement that both parties shall be heard, yet the justice of common law will supplant the omission of the legislature.
Administrative agencies in India are not bound by the technical rules procedure of law courts; this accentuates the need to follow the minimum procedure of fair hearing.
Law is clear on the point that in cases classified as “quasi-judicial” there is a “duty to act judicially” i.e. to follow the principles of natural justice in, nut in cases which are classified as “administrative” there is only a “duty to act fairly” which simply means that the administrative authority must act justly and fairly and not arbitrarily or capriciously.
In the case of Keshav Mills Co. Ltd v Union of India the government, on the basis of a report of the enquiry committee had taken over the management of the mill-company, which had been closed down without supplying the copy of the report to the management and without affording an opportunity of hearing. The takeover was challenged on the ground of violation of the principles of natural justice. The Honorable Supreme Court though did not interfere with the order on the ground that no prejudice was caused to the mill-company, yet observed:
“The only essential point that has to be kept in mind in all cases…that the administrative authority concerned should act fairly, impartially and reasonably.”
The basic purpose behind developing the fairness doctrine within the area of ‘administrative or executive’ functions of the administration where principles of natural justice are not attracted is to reconcile “fairness to the individual” with the “flexibility of the administrative action”. It is an attempt of over-judicialization of administrative process. Therefore, where an administrative authority is not exercising quasi-judicial powers and as such there is no duty to act judicially because the principles of natural justice are not attracted in such cases, Court may still insist on a “duty to act fairly”. As both doctrines operate in different areas of administrative action, so there is no chance of any conflict.
The right to fair hearing is a code of procedure and hence covers every stage through which an administrative adjudication passes, starting from notice to final determination. Detailed requirement of audi alteram partem range is a continuum from notice to the final determination.
(1) Right to Notice- Notice means knowledge of circumstances that ought to induce suspicion or belief, as well as direct information of that fact. Generally a notice in order to be adequate must contain the following:
(a) Time, Place and nature of hearing.
(b) Legal authority under which hearing is to be held.
(c) Statement of specific charges which the person has to meet.
Consequences of non-issue of notice:
It has no effect on the jurisdiction of the authority.
If prejudice has been cause by non issue of notice then it would vitiate the entire proceeding.
However, if the party itself is responsible for non-delivery of notice to it then there would be no effect on the overall proceedings.
Right to know the evidence against him and rebutt it- Every peron has a right to inspect the evidence against himslf as and when a case is filed against him. Thus, nothing can be used against a person which has not been brought to his notice.
Right to present case and evidence- The party shall be allowed to present his case either orally or in writing at the discretion of the authority. Oral hearing is not a requisite. In Union of India v J.P. Mitter the court refused to quash the order of the president of India in a dispute realting to the age of a high court judge on the ground that the president did not grant oral hearing even on request. The court was of the view that when aperson has been given an oppurtunity to represent himself by way of writing then there is no infringement of his rights guarabteed by natural justice.
Courts are of the view that any decision given in contravention to natural rights is mereley voidable and not void.
Principles of natural justice which include an oppurtunity to the person against whom a decision is sought to be taken and an obligation of the authority to give reasons for its decisions are also necssary for ensuring openness of government which is paramount in a democracy. These principles have been integrated into our system of administration of justice and the courts are required to follow them through the formal laws of procedure and evidnce. Where formal laws of procedure or evidence are not applicable as in case of tribunals or administrative authorities, rules of natural justice serve as minimum norms of proceduaral fairness. It is now fairly settled that principles of natural justice form part of the legal and judicial procedure.