DECODING THE LEGAL DOCTRINE OF RES JUDICATA

I would begin this article by enthusiastically writing, to re-litigate ,or not to re-litigate,that is the question.Lawyers are time and again seen arguing in the court about their lawsuit getting struck by the doctrine of ‘res judicata’.And if accepted by the court, the case in question is dropped right at the stage of admission itself.

It is worth noting that the principle of res judicata is one of the oldest in the world and has rolled out from the English Common Law System when in the early days of England,courts had become really unorganised, cluttered and chaotic.The motive of this doctrine was to provide finality to litigation and to safeguard parties from being vexed by the same matter twice.

Res means “subject matter” and judicata means “adjudged” or decided and together it means “a matter adjudged”. Fundamentally this term implies that a case cannot be contested again between the same litigants if it has been adjudicated on merit basis in the court of law. This principle not only helps in bringing finality to litigation but also prevents the harassment of the same person again and again.

Res judicata involves two conceptualizations of (1)claim preclusion and (2)issue preclusion. Issue preclusion is also called collateral estoppel. To understand ‘issue preclusion’,I will state an example:if party X wins or loses a suit against party Y,then X cannot sue Y or vice versa on the same  facts and circumstances, not even in a different court of law. Now, for understanding ‘claim preclusion’, let’s say after having an insect infested drink X sued Y for negligence in case A.The jury in case A rules against X. So,X probably cannot sue Y again based on negligence. Even if X sues alleging deliberate poisoning instead of negligence, the case stands barred. 

Now it is pertinent to note that section 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure contains the doctrine of res judicata in India. It is very similar to the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution which safeguards individuals from being put on a second trial. Anyway,in India the scope of Res Judicata isn’t confined to Section 11 of CPC. It is relevant to administrative,constitutional and criminal law as well. 

Now here is another interesting principle in Section 11 of CPC which is the ‘constructive res judicata’ and that can be best understood by the case,State of Uttar Pradesh v. Nawab Hussain,so M was a sub-inspector and was dismissed from the service of D.I.G. he challenged the order of dismissal by filing a writ petition in the High Court. He said that he did not get a reasonable opportunity of being heard before the passing of the order. However, the argument was rejected and the petition was dismissed.

He again filed a petition on the ground that he was appointed by the I.G.P. and had no power to dismiss him. The defendant argued that the suit was barred by constructive res judicata. However, the trial court, the first appellate court as well as the High Court held that the suit was not barred by the doctrine of res judicata. The Supreme Court held that the suit was barred by constructive res judicata as the plea was within the knowledge of the plaintiff, M and he could have taken this argument in his earlier suit. 

So,res judicata as a concept is sometimes not applicable in certain issues. It is germane to the Writ of Habeas Corpus(as far as High Court is concerned), income tax/sales tax cases, Public Interest Litigation, minor suits and special leave petitions(SLPs). Often the question arises that can res judicata be waived? This can be answered by what was held in the case of P.C. Ray and Company Private Limited V.Union of India where the court said plea of the doctrine may be waived by a party to a proceeding. If the defendant doesn’t raise a defence to the same in the proceedings, then it will be waived.

To sum it up,there is no denying that the scope of Res Judicata has increased over time and it definitely has many elongated areas to fill in the future too. It would be no double dealing if I were to say, understanding Section 11 of CPC is a restatement in itself. And in a country like ours this doctrine has positively brought about a significant conformity in laws.

References:

  1. http://www.legalservicesindia.com/article/1782/Res-Sub-Judice,-Res-Judicata-and-Constructive-Res-Judicata.html
  2. Section 11 of Code of Civil Procedure: https://indiankanoon.org/

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