A judgment on the land acquisition law this month has landed the Supreme Court in an unusual situation after it turned out on Wednesday that the verdict contradicted another passed by the court three years ago.
A bench of the court is entitled to overrule a judgment delivered by a smaller bench.
But a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court on February 8 ended up disagreeing with a verdict also delivered earlier by three judges of the top court in 2014.
“We are only concerned with judicial discipline. Can a three-judge bench overrule judgment of another three judges? If they differ with the correctness of an earlier decision, they can only refer the matter to the Chief Justice of India for a decision by a larger bench,” Justice Kurian Joesph observed when the bench also comprising Justice Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta, was informed about the new verdict.
In 2014, three judges of the Supreme Court had ruled that the government’s acquiring land could be considered void if the money had not been deposited into the accounts of the landowners. This ruling helped people who had refused to surrender their land and refused to accept the compensation amount.
But on February 8, a three-judge bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra reversed this verdict. This set of three judges decided that it was enough for the government to offer the compensation and it did not matter if the landowner refused to accept the money.
The Supreme Court has asked all high courts across the country to put off decisions in land acquisition disputes on the basis of these judgments till the matter was sorted out.
One option before the Supreme Court is to refer the two verdicts to the Supreme Court Chief Justice so that he can set up a larger five-judge bench for the last word. The court will take the call on how to proceed further on March 7.
“We are not going into the merits or correctness of the decision by Justice Mishra’s bench. We are only concerned with judicial discipline,” Justice Kurian Joseph said.
The senior judge underlined that the hoary principle of the Supreme Court “is that you can’t tinker with the system”.
“If a judgment is wrong, there is a method of reference to a larger bench and this is the practice being followed over the years. If the Supreme Court is one, it should be made one and you need a conscious judicial discipline to do that. My painful concern is that this judicial discipline has not been followed (by the Justice Arun Mishra bench). If it wants to correct an earlier judgment, it should be done by the larger bench to make it (the judgment) as the last word,” Justice Joseph said after hearing former Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi.
Mr Rohatgi had argued that the new judgment by Justice Mishra’s bench had resulted “in chaos all over the country as it has not followed the judicial discipline of earlier precedents”.
As a result, he said, high courts were delivering their judgments that were affecting the rights of landowners and could have disastrous consequences.
Mr Rohatgi said at least 5,000 cases had been decided over the last three years on the basis of the 2014 verdict which would have to be recalled and reviewed.
The petitioner also argued that this had caused confusion among the public.