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Navtej Singh Johar & Ors. v. Union of India Ministry of Law and Justice Secretary Writ Petition No. 76/2016

On the 8th of January, 2018, a three judge bench of the Supreme Court ordered that the Suresh Koushal decision which upheld the constitutionality of S.377[1] requires reconsideration. The court so ordered while hearing a writ petition challenging the constitutionality of S.377 (Navtej writ). Substantively, the judges stated emphatically that the “litmus test” for finding S.377 unconstitutional was if it offends constitutional morality, regardless of how societal morality on the issue was poised. Should a people exercise the “inherent” right to their sexual orientation within the confines of constitutional morality, the court stated, they will receive the protection of Article 21.[2] To be sure, S.377 is still constitutional, both because the Navtej writ is not finally disposed and because the Suresh Koushal ruling is still in operation. However, these observations no doubt strengthened the judicial discourse on the protection of sexuality rights. However, this blog is not about these substantive proclamations. Instead, in this blog, I will attempt to answer two procedural questions which arise from this January order of the Supreme Court:

  1. Was the Supreme Court empowered to admit the Navtej writ given that the Suresh Koushal decision is due to come up for hearing in the curative process? [Yes]
  2. How does the order passed in this writ, affect the 377 curative petition[3], if at all? [Not at all]

However, before delving into these inquires, a few preliminary matters need to be clarified.

WHAT IS A CURATIVE PETITION?

A case goes through two stages at the Supreme Court: judgment and review. A curative petition is a petition that can be filed after the disposal of the review petition. It is a judicially created process at having yet another look at the decision. Its genesis is owed to the Ashok Hurra Case (2002, SC) which stated that although finality of a decision is very important for certainty and stability of a legal system, the inherent powers granted to the Supreme Court allow it to reconsider its decision to prevent miscarriage of justice. The court then laid down illustrative grounds for understanding miscarriage of justice:

  1. Petitioner must show a violation of principles of natural justice. If they were not a party to the proceedings in the Supreme Court, they must show that the decision adversely affects their interest; if they were a party to the proceedings they must show that they had not been served with notice and the proceedings went on as if he had been served notice [this last ground was successfully pleaded in one of the three successful curative petitions—MP v. Sugar Singh]; or
  2. The judges at the Supreme Court proceedings failed to disclose their connection to the subject matter or parties, which gives an apprehension of bias disadvantaging the petitioner.

Aside from these points, the curative petitioner must also show:

  1. The points raised in the curative have been raised in the review;
  2. A senior lawyer must certify as to the fulfilment of the conditions 1-3
  3. Three of the senior-most judges, along with the judges that heard the original Supreme Court decision will then preside over the matter. The curative petitioners have to make those arguments in these petitions which can demonstrate either points 1 or 2 above (or other grounds which can point to miscarriage of justice)[4] at the first stage to get the petition admitted. If the petition is admitted, the Hurra case says, “the same bench” must hear the matter on merits. The phrasing “same bench” here is confusing. Does it mean the same bench which originally heard the case or does it mean the same bench which is considering the curative? This issue does not arise in the 377 curative as both judges who originally heard the case have since retired. However, I will address this issue here for completeness. Sometimes, the same bench that admits the curative decides, barring of course, the judges that retired since the curative was admitted [see, for example, Bhaskar Lal Sharma v. Monica, Navneet Kaur]. Sometimes, another bench decides though the admitting bench is still on the rolls [for example, MP v. Sugar Singh][5].

This procedure has now been formalized and is housed in Order XLVIII of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013. However, it is important to note that the curative petition arguments are gateway arguments. Once the petition is admitted on points 1 and 2 above (or other miscarriage of justice grounds), the original cases are restored (in our case, the petitions filed by Suresh Koushal etc. and Naz and others at the Supreme Court level) and the court now hears arguments on the points addressed in those filings.

  1. MAINTAINABILITY OF THE NAVTEJ WRIT

This brings us to the point of maintainability of the Navtej writ. Lawyers for Navtej Johar asserted in their writ that the issues raised by their writ petition are “varied and diverse” from those raised in the 377 curative. I argue that this distinction is only surface level and it is unnecessary. It is surface level because once the curatives are admitted, the original SLPs and written submissions will be restored and arguments will once again be heard on the merits of those filings. Those who followed the Kaushal arguments in 2012, will recall that they were chiefly around Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the constitution. The Navtej writ also makes Article 21 arguments[6] and so substantively, both petitions will be raising similar arguments.

This distinction is also unnecessary because Res Judicata only operates between “the same parties and in respect of the same cause of action.” [Sanjay Singh v. UPSC, SC 2007]. That means that the same parties cannot bring a case based on the same grounds once the Supreme Court has decided the dispute between them (assume review, curative are all done). In the Navtej writ, parties are different from the Suresh Koushal proceedings even though the subject matter is the same (i.e. constitutionality of 377). This is legally permissible. On this point, consider the case of Sanjay Singh v. UPSC. Here, unsuccessful candidates at a judicial selection exam challenged the scaling method deployed by the examiners to calculate scores. This exact question had come up before the Supreme Court earlier in a case called UPSC v. S.C. Dixit wherein the scaling method was found constitutional. This decision was reaffirmed at the curative level as well. The UPSC sought to argue that Sanjay Singh’s case should be dismissed because the Dixit case had already found the same scaling method constitution. The Supreme Court replied that the ratio decidendi [logic of the decision, loosely] of a previous case can always be challenged by a subsequent case [in fact, this is how legal reasoning changes]. What cannot be changed is the order in the previous case. This literally means that a subsequent court cannot pass an order reversing the final order of a prior judgment.[7] This would in the Koushal context mean that the Navtej court cannot pass an order which changes the result of the Koushal review from “dismissed” to “admitted” [See Sanjay Singh, para 10]. However, a subsequent proceeding filed in the court challenging the rationale of the Koushal judgment by different parties is not prohibited.

Similarly, if the parties remain the same but the points of dispute between them change, they can file a writ even though a curative petition on different points has been dismissed. However, since this point is not in issue in the context of the 377 litigation, I am not pressing it here. What conspires from this discussion then is that the Supreme Court was empowered to admit the Navtej writ even as the 377 curative is “pending.

  1. HOW DOES THE NAVTEJ ORDER AFFECT THE 377 CURATIVE?

The Navtej order does not affect the 377 curative in any way. As of now, the 377 curative petition has not been admitted. The last hearing on the curative matter was on the 2nd of February, 2016. In that hearing, a three judge bench of the Supreme Court ordered that the petition should be placed before a five judge bench to decide whether the petition should be admitted, in the first instance. If the five judge bench admits the curative, it will then decide whether the original Supreme Court decision was right on the law. Therefore, at this time, the curative has not been admitted, and the review process being over, for all practical purposes, the decision of the Supreme Court is final [See on this point, Ashiq Hussain Faktoo, SC 2008]. For an analogy, consider a judgment of the High Court that has not been appealed to the Supreme Court. Although hypothetically, the decision could be overturned, until an appeal is admitted to the Supreme Court, the decision is final as between the parties. Similarly, until the Supreme Court admits the curative petition, the review decision is final. The curative and the Navtej are two entirely different beasts; the results of one, leave alone an intermittent order, does not automatically decide the fate of the other.

Now, the lawyers of the Navtej writ have two choices. The first is to argue that the Navtej writ be tagged along with the curative hearing, assuming the curative is admitted. In that situation, the fates of these two petitions will be tied. The other, and perhaps, the more profitable path is for the lawyers to argue that the curative and the writ be heard separately so that assuming that the 377 curative fails to overturn Koushal on merits, there is yet another chance for the constitutionality of 377 to be decided via the Navtej writ. This has been done once before in the case of Abdul Gabbar Khan. Khan appealed in the Supreme Court claiming compensation on the basis of the Bhopal gas tragedy settlement. A curative on the same issue was already pending in the Supreme Court[8].  Khan’s counsel was successfully able to argue that the appeal be decided after the court had heard the curative even though the court had suggested that the appeal and the curative be tagged together.

[1] S. 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalize carnal intercourse against the order of nature.

[2] Fundamental right to life.

[3] What I refer to collectively as the 377 curative is actually a bunch of curative petitions filed by Naz Foundation, parents of LGBT persons, professors, mental health professionals, Academics Ratna Kapur et. al., Voices Against 377 and Mr. X.

[4] The different curative petitioners have tried to demonstrate a miscarriage of justice through different techniques. For example, Naz has tried to show that the Koushal decision omitted to consider the amended S. 375 while pronouncing the decision. The mental health professionals have chiefly argued that the expert opinion and scientific evidence provided by them on homosexuality was not considered by the Supreme Court. For other arguments raised to demonstrate miscarriage of justice see, curative petitions filed by some of the other petitioners here.

[5] The judges who decided the actual Supreme Court judgment complained of had since retired.

[6] Primarily, that the right to sexuality, sexual autonomy and sexual partner are rights protected by the fundamental right to life guaranteed by the Indian constitution (Article 21).

[7] See especially on this point, para 21 of Shaukat Hussain Guru v. Delhi Writ Petition (Criminal) 106/2007) and U.P.S.C. v. Subhash Chandra Dixit Civil Appeal 8609/2013.

[8] At the last hearing on this matter, the court directed that the matter be heard in open court to decide the issue of admission, in the first instance. The matter has since not been listed for such a hearing.

My thanks to Ramki and Adv. Mihir Samson for helping me figure out where curatives and the Navtej writ can be found online. My thanks also to my young cousin, Smriti, who helped in so many intangible ways to make sure that this blog goes up on time.