Law, not equity must prevail, Supreme Court
A bench of justices Markandeya Katju and Gyan Sudha Mishra in a recent judgement said courts should not interpret rules on the basis of equity.
"In other words, once we depart from the literal rule, then any number of interpretations can be put to a statutory provision, each judge having a free play to put his own interpretation as he likes.
"This would be destructive of judicial discipline, and also the basic principle in a democracy that it is not for the judge to legislate as that is the task of elected representatives of the people. Even if the literal interpretation results in hardship or inconvenience, it has to be followed," the bench said.
The apex court passed the ruling while setting aside a May 23, 2006 judgement of a Full Bench of the Kerala High Court which on the basis of principles of equity upheld the promotion of general category candidates for the post of Block Development Officer(BDOs).
The dispute related to inter se seniority for the post of BDOs between the general category candidates and petitioner Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe candidates.
The apex court said, "The Full Bench and single judge have relied on equity, justice and good conscience, rather than law. We are of the opinion that this approach is incorrect. When there is a conflict between law and equity, it is the law which is to prevail.
"Equity can only supplement the law when there is a gap in it, but it cannot supplant the law. In the present case, Rule 27(c) clearly makes the appellants senior to the respondents as the advice for their appointments were made prior to that for the respondents," the bench said.
According to Rule 27(c) of the Kerala State and Subordinate Services Rules, seniority is to be determined "by the date of first effective advice made by the Public Service Commission to the State Government for appointment.
In the present case for the appellants B Premanand and other SC/ST candidates the said advice for appointment was made by the Kerala Public Service Commission on July 8, 1992 and they joined between July 13, 1992 and October 22,1992.
Whereas, "advice" for the general category candidates was made on April 6, 1993 and they were appointed as BDOs on September 28, 1993 and they joined between October 6,1993 and November 17, 1993.
However, the Full Bench of the High Court ruled in favour of the general category candidates vis-a-vis seniority on the ground that their original selection was much prior to the SC/ST candidates.
The apex court said that Rule 27(c) of the rules was plain and clear, hence, the literal rule of interpretation would apply to it.
"No doubt, equity may be in favour of the respondents because they were selected earlier, but as observed earlier, if there is a conflict between equity and the law, it is the law which must prevail. The law, which is contained in Rule 27(c), is clearly in favour of the appellants," the bench said.
In this context, the bench recalled the ancient "Mimansa Rules of Interpretation," which, it said, were regrettably hardly ever used in our law courts.
"It may be mentioned that it is not stated anywhere in the Constitution of India that only Maxwell`s Principles of Interpretation can be utilised. We can utilise any system of interpretation which can help to resolve a difficulty.
"According to the Mimansa principles, the Shruti (literal meaning) will prevail over the Linga (suggestive power)," the bench said.
It said where the words of a statute are absolutely clear and unambiguous, recourse cannot be had to the principles of interpretation other than the literal rule.
"The language employed in a statute is the determinative factor of the legislative intent. The legislature is presumed to have made no mistake. The presumption is that it intended to say what it has said.
"Assuming there is a defect or an omission in the words used by the legislature, the court cannot correct or make up the deficiency," it said.
The apex court said a departure from the literal rule should only be done in very rare cases, and ordinarily there should be judicial restraint in this connection.
"In other words, the literal rule of interpretation simply means that we mean what we say and we say what we mean.
If we do not follow the literal rule of interpretation, social life will become impossible, and we will not understand each other. Life will become impossible," the bench added.