Biases in Legal Interpretation: A Concrete Understanding Through Cases in India

by Arundhatti Ojha

Legal interpretation, as a concept, entails several constitutional responsibilities on the part of the courts. While interpreting a statue they must bear certain things in mind such as, the purpose of the law, the context it is being applied in and the impact it will have after the due process of application[1]. Over the course of this article, several angles of legal interpretation will be analysed. First, the aids to statutory interpretation will be elaborated upon, followed by a profound analysis of the Bhopal Gas tragedy. While thoroughly examining this case, the various biases that interfered with the judicial proceedings will also be emphasised. Finally, the Sabrimala case and the Babri Masjid case is also briefly elaborated to further highlight the biases that tend to arise in legal interpretation. These cases enable the reader to paint a clear picture of the various biases which prevent justice from reaching the general public. These biases hence create a justice system that does not uphold the beliefs of equality and fairness it claims to advocate.

Contemporanea Expositio Est Optima Et Fortissima in Lege” refers to the “best and strongest law”[2]. It refers to the fact that if any law is to be applied, it should be applied in the context it was created in. The courts should trust the judgement of the legislators who formulated these statues and not deviate from its notes of origin. However, it has been periodically observed that law is not simply interpreted because of reason and argument. There will always be several other factors that come into play. In Contrast, Legal positivism as a concept is contingent upon the strict interpretation of a rule of law. However, one could also argue, as Adrian Vermeule does, that legal interpretation tends to “oscillate over a defined range of positions.”[3] He speaks of textualism and intentionalism[4] which forms the backbone of all forms of statutory interpretation.

 In the case of statutory interpretation, the court relies on two types of aids. The first being internal aids such as titles, explanations, and schedules.[5] The second being external aids such as committee reports, debates, journals, and any other credible source to make an informed judgement[6]. According to the declaratory theory, as propounded in Burmah Oil v Lord Advocate[7], judges state they are merely objects representing the legal system and often use this as a defence. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy on the other hand was a unique case where judges showed active disregard for the people’s fundamental rights. In 1984, methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal and the hazardous gas went on to injure thousands of people that had been exposed to it[8]. Hence, the Bhopal gas tragedy serves as an ideal example of the failure of the legal system to correctly interpret a statue and provide the justice they promise to deliver. Furthermore, the myth of judicial independence, which the court claimed to follow, was shattered in the Union Carbide Corporation vs. Government of India.[9].

The case of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy had several issues within it. According to the policy of clear statement, it is essential for the court to spell out a clear difference between criminal and noncriminal conduct in cases before them[10]. However, in this case the court took conflicting stances over the years, leaving the victims in a state of confusion and chaos[11].This stems from the constant delay in adjudicating the various cases, judgements that did not favour the victims and other such decisions made by the courts[12]. In this judgement, the court departed from the natural prevailing law, and this proved to be a violation of the policy of clear statement[13]. There was no consideration for the victims who had clearly been wronged. The inability of the court to prosecute the UCC hinted at a clear bias in their judgement. Actus Curiae Neminem Gravabit[14] states that any act of the court should prejudice no man. However, here the court was not only biased but also failed to comprehend the nature of the problem and act reasonably in due course of time.

According to the golden rule of legal interpretation, when application of a literal rule results in a peculiar and ambiguous situation, it is the courts duty to research and determine the purpose of the law and why the legislators had framed it as such[15]. However, the irony in this situation was that the court did not make use of either of these rules. They did not provide any explanation to the public as to why they were dropping the criminal charges. It was almost as if political factors had seeped into the judicial procedures, thwarting the deliverance of justice.

The case also became a battleground for politics, with prime minister candidate V.P. Singh promising to reopen the case if he came to power and providing a much larger compensation[16]. He ruthlessly criticised the congress party for denying justice to the victims. Ronald Reagan’s, US president at the time, special relationship with Rajiv Gandhi also is suspected to have been a reason for the decision made by the court[17].With the social unrest and growing dissent towards the judgement, the court finally decided to reopen the case and right the wrong.[18] They decided to provide a larger settlement claim to the victims and promised to re-examine the terms of the judgement. The Bhopal Act came into existence and the court assured the public that it would decide upon an appropriate amount depending upon the injury suffered.[19] The court by the parens patriae doctrine took charge of the case to fight it against UCC[20]. This doctrine, in simple terms, meant that the court would act as the ‘parent’ and argue for all the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy against the Union Carbide Corporation in court.  This again brings out how a socio-political factor played a leading role in the interpretation and application of law. However, till date, these victims have not been given their due compensation[21].

By the mischief rule, the court can make amendments to interpretation of statues earlier and thus remedy any wrong done in the past[22]. The court used this tool in cases like India young lawyers association vs. the state of Kerala[23], also known as the Sabarimala case. However, in his final judgement Justice D Y Chandrachud claimed that to treat females as products of an inferior good is, “to blink at constitutional morality.”[24] However, the concept of morality changes with time periods and it is thus impossible to determine a universal definition of it. This moral basis is again clearly opposed to legal positivism. Another judicial decision influenced by other factors was the Babri masjid case[25], where Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi pronounced in his judgement that the land in question belonged explicitly to one community. However, he refused to reveal who authored this 1045 page judgement[26] and thus violated the policy of clear statement by deviating from the prevailing law[27]. Less than four months after delivering a judgement that clearly favoured the governing party in India, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. This proves that political factors can also play a role in dictating legal interpretation.

 The fact that India follows a hybrid system of civil and common law, the doctrine of stare decisis (judicial precedence) has a very strong role to play in deciding cases.[28] However, when judges also use Per incuriam, a doctrine by which they can choose to ignore earlier statues and make their own decisions; it may be a double edged sword. The Bhopal Gas tragedy highlighted this use of per incuriam, where the judges adjudicated the cases in a unique manner. On the other hand, H. Miles Foy III argues that usual procedure can be “analytically insufficient.”[29]He also speaks of “discretionary interpretation,”[30] where judges do let their own wisdom seep into decisions made. For instance, the decision made in the Babri masjid case does hint at some form of bias in judgement. This suspicion is further strengthened by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s nomination to the Rajya Sabha. As a result, judicial activism and judicial review have also influenced the interpretation of laws. Its presence is felt strongly within the legal system. However, when judges fail to be neutral in judgements, it violates the theory of natural justice. This brings into question the doctrine of judicial independence, a concept that is integral to any system of justice.

Views are personal.

Image Credits: Akorbi

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Arundhatti Ojha is currently pursuing law at Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat.

REFERENCES

[1]Henry M. Hart & Albert M. Sacks,The Legal Process: basic problems in the making and application of law 1,1374(William N. Eskridge (Jr.) &Phillip P. Frickey eds., Foundation Press1994).

[2]M. Govindarajan, Interpretation of Statues, Tax Management INDIA (Nov. 18,2019) https://www.taxmanagementindia.com/visitor/detail_article.asp?ArticleID=8825

[3]Adrian Vermeule, The Cycle of Interpretation, 68(1), U Chi L Rev, 149,150 (2001).

[4]Id. at 158.

[5] Hart & Sacks supra note 1.

[6]Govindarajan, supra note 2.

[7]Burmah Oil Company Limited (Burma Trading) v Lord Advocate (1965), A.C. 75 (HL) (appeal taken from Scot.).

[8] Colin Gonsalves, The Bhopal Catastrophe: Politics, Conspiracy and Betrayal, 45(26/27), EPW,68,69(2010).

[9]Union Carbide Corpn. (2) v. Union of India, A.I.R. 1990 S.C. 273(India).

[10] HENRY M. HART & ALBERT M. SACKS, THE LEGAL PROCESS: BASIC PROBLEMS IN THE MAKING AND APPLICATION OF LAW 1,377(William N. Eskridge (Jr.) & Phillip P. Frickey eds., Foundation Press1994).

[11]Gonsalves supra note 8.

[12] Id.

[13]Hart & Sackssupra note 7 at 1376.

[14]M. Govindarajan, Interpretation of Statues, TAX MANAGEMENT INDIA (Nov. 18,2019) https://www.taxmanagementindia.com/visitor/detail_article.asp?ArticleID=8825

[15]Id.

[16]Tim Covell, The Bhopal Disaster Litigation: It’s Not Over Yet, 16(2), N.C.J. Int’l L.& Com. Reg.,279,297(1991).

[17]Gonsalves, supra note 8 at 68.

[18] Colin Gonsalves, The Bhopal Catastrophe: Politics, Conspiracy and Betrayal, 45(26/27), EPW,68,71(2010).

[19] Id. at 70.

[20]Id.

[21] Tim Covell, The Bhopal Disaster Litigation: It’s Not Over Yet, 16(2), N.C.J. Int’l L.& Com. Reg.,279,299(1991).

[22]Govindarajan, supra note 10.

[23]India Young Lawyers Assn. (Sabrimala Temple Review- 5 J) v. State of Kerala,A.I.R. 2018 S.C. 1690 (India).

[24]Id.

[25]M. Siddiq (Ram Janmabhumi Temple 5-J.) v. Suresh Das, A.I.R. 2019, S.C. 1440 (India).

[26]Shermin Joy, Ayodhya Verdict: Mystery over who wrote the judgement, Deccan Herald, (Nov. 9,2019,5;42 PM), https://www.deccanherald.com/national/national-politics/ayodhya-verdict-mystery-over-who-wrote-the-judgement-774810.html

[27]HENRY M. HART & ALBERT M. SACKS, THE LEGAL PROCESS: BASIC PROBLEMS IN THE MAKING AND APPLICATION OF LAW 1,376(William N. Eskridge (Jr.) & Phillip P. Frickey eds., Foundation Press1994).

[28]Id. at 374.

[29]H. Miles Foy III, ON JUDICIAL DISCRETION IN STATUORY INTERPRETATION, 62(2), ADMIN. L. Rev. 291,292(2010).

[30]Id. at 293.

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