It is one of the settled principles of a civilised legal system that a Judge is required to be impartial. It is said that the hallmark of a democracy is the existence of an impartial Judge.

Nemo Judex in Re Sua

It all started with a Latin maxim Nemo Judex in Re Sua which means literally – that no man shall be a judge in his own cause. There is another rule which requires a Judge to be impartial.

The theoretical basis is explained by Thomas Hobbes in his Eleventh Law of Nature. He said

“If a man be trusted to judge between man and man, it is a precept of the law of Nature that he deal equally between them. For without that, the controversies of men cannot be determined but by war. He therefore, said that is partial in judgment doth what in him lies, to deter men from the use of judges and arbitrators; and consequently, against the fundamental law of Nature, is the cause of war.”

Principles on the law of recusal

Grant Hammond, a former Judge of the Court of Appeal of New Zealand and an academician, in his book titled “Judicial Recusal” traced out principles on the law of recusal as developed in England in the following words :-

“The central feature of the early English common law on recusal was both simple and highly constrained: a judge could only be disqualified for a direct pecuniary interest. What would today be termed ‘bias’, which is easily the most controversial ground for disqualification, was entirely rejected as a ground for recusal of judges, although it was not completely dismissed in relation to jurors.

This was in marked contrast to the relatively sophisticated canon law, which provided for recusal if a judge was suspected of partiality because of consanguinity, affinity, friendship or enmity with a party, or because of his subordinate status towards a party or because he was or had been a party’s advocate.” He also pointed out that in contrast in the United States of America, the subject is covered by legislation.

Dimes v. Proprietors of Grand Junction Canal

Dimes v. Proprietors of Grand Junction Canal, (1852) 10 ER 301, is one of the earliest cases where the question of disqualification of a Judge was considered. The ground was that he had some pecuniary interest in the matter.

Lord Chancellor Cottenham heard the appeal against an order of the Vice-Chancellor and confirmed the order. The order went in favour of the defendant company. A year later, Dimes discovered that Lord Chancellor Cottenham had shares in the defendant company. He petitioned the Queen for her intervention. The litigation had a long and chequered history, the details of which are not material for us. Eventually, the matter reached the House of Lords.

The House dismissed the appeal of Dimes on the ground that setting aside of the order of the Lord Chancellor would still leave the order of the Vice-Chancellor intact as Lord Chancellor had merely affirmed the order of the Vice-Chancellor. However, the House of Lords held that participation of Lord Cottenham in the adjudicatory process was not justified.

Though Lord Campbell observed: “No one can suppose that Lord Cottenham could be, in the remotest degree, influenced by the interest he had in this concern: but, my Lords, it is of the last importance that the maxim that no man is to be a judge in his own cause be held sacred. And that is not to be confined to a cause in which he is a party, but applies to a cause in which he has an interest …. This will be a lesson to all inferior tribunals to take care not only that in their decrees they are not influenced by their personal interest, but to avoid the appearance of labouring under such an influence.”

Summing up the principle laid down by the abovementioned case, Hammond observed as follows: “The ‘no-pecuniary interest’ principle as expressed in Dimes requires a judge to be automatically disqualified when there is neither actual bias nor even an apprehension of bias on the part of that judge. The fundamental philosophical underpinning of Dimes is therefore predicated on a conflict of interest approach.”

Regina v. Gough, (1993) AC 646

The next landmark case on the question of “bias” is Regina v. Gough, (1993) AC 646. Gough was convicted for an offence of conspiracy to rob and was sentenced to imprisonment for fifteen years by the Trial Court. It was a trial by Jury. After the conviction was announced, it was brought to the notice of the Trial Court that one of the jurors was a neighbour of the convict.

The convict appealed to the Court of Appeal unsuccessfully. One of the grounds on which the conviction was challenged was that, in view of the fact that one of the jurors being a neighbour of the convict presented a possibility of bias on her part and therefore the conviction is unsustainable. The Court of Appeal noticed that there are two lines of authority propounding two different tests for determining disqualification of a Judge on the ground of bias:

(1) “real danger” test; and (2) “reasonable suspicion” test. The Court of Appeal confirmed the conviction by applying the “real danger” test.

The matter was carried further to the House of Lords. Lord Goff noticed that there are a series of authorities which are “not only large in number but bewildering in their effect”. After analysing the judgment in Dimes (supra), Lord Goff held:

“In such a case, therefore, not only is it irrelevant that there was in fact no bias on the part of the tribunal, but there is no question of investigating, from an objective point of view, whether there was any real likelihood of bias, or any reasonable suspicion of bias, on the facts of the particular case. The nature of the interest is such that public confidence in the administration of justice requires that the decision should not stand.”

In other words, where a Judge has a pecuniary interest, no further inquiry as to whether there was a “real danger” or “reasonable suspicion” of bias is required to be undertaken. But in other cases, such an inquiry is required and the relevant test is the “real danger” test. “But in other cases, the inquiry is directed to the question whether there was such a degree of possibility of bias on the part of the tribunal that the court will not allow the decision to stand. Such a question may arise in a wide variety of circumstances. These include …. cases in which the member of the tribunal has an interest in the outcome of the proceedings, which falls short of a direct pecuniary interest.

Such interests may vary widely in their nature, in their effect, and in their relevance to the subject matter of the proceedings; and there is no rule …. that the possession of such an interest automatically disqualifies the member of the tribunal from sitting. Each case falls to be considered on its own facts.”

The learned Judge examined various important cases on the subject and finally concluded:

“Finally, for the avoidance of doubt, I prefer to state the test in terms of real danger rather than real likelihood, to ensure that the court is thinking in terms of possibility rather than probability of bias. Accordingly, having ascertained the relevant circumstances, the court should ask itself whether, having regard to those circumstances, there was a real danger of bias on the part of the relevant member of the tribunal in question, in the sense that he might unfairly regard (or have unfairly regarded) with favour, or disfavour, the case of a party to the issue under consideration by him.”

Lord Woolf agreed with Lord Goff in his separate judgment. He held:

“There is only one established special category and that exists where the tribunal has a pecuniary or proprietary interest in the subject matter of the proceedings as in Dimes v. Proprietors of Grand Junction Canal, 3 H.L. Case 759. The courts should hesitate long before creating any other special category since this will immediately create uncertainty as to what are the parameters of that category and what is the test to be applied in the case of that category. The real danger test is quite capable of producing the right answer and ensure that the purity of justice is maintained across the range of situations where bias may exist.”

In substance, the Court held that in cases where the Judge has a pecuniary interest in the outcome of the proceedings, his disqualification is automatic. No further enquiry whether such an interest lead to a “real danger” or gave rise to a “reasonable suspicion” is necessary. In cases of other interest, the test to determine whether the Judge is disqualified to hear the case is the “real danger” test.

The Pinochet case

The Pinochet case added one more category to the cases of automatic disqualification for a judge. Pinochet, a former Chilean dictator, was sought to be arrested and extradited from England for his conduct during his incumbency in office. The issue was whether Pinochet was entitled to immunity from such arrest or extradition. Amnesty International, a charitable organisation, participated in the said proceedings with the leave of the Court.

The House of Lords held that Pinochet did not enjoy any such immunity. Subsequently, it came to light that Lord Hoffman, one of the members of the Board which heard the Pinochet case, was a Director and Chairman of a company (known as A.I.C.L.) which was closely linked with Amnesty International. An application was made to the House of Lords to set aside the earlier judgment on the ground of bias on the part of Lord Hoffman.

The House of Lords examined the following questions; whether the connection of Lord Hoffman with Amnesty International required him to be automatic disqualified? Whether an enquiry into the question whether cause of Lord Hoffman’s connection with Amnesty International posed a real danger or caused a reasonable apprehension that his judgment is biased – is necessary? Did it make any difference that Lord Hoffman was only a member of a company associated with Amnesty International which was in fact interested in securing the extradition of Senator Pinochet?

Lord Wilkinson summarised the principles on which a Judge is disqualified to hear a case. As per Lord Wilkinson –

“The fundamental principle is that a man may not be a judge in his own cause. This principle, as developed by the courts, has two very similar but not identical implications. First it may be applied literally: if a judge is in fact a party to the litigation or has a financial or proprietary interest in its outcome then he is indeed sitting as a judge in his own cause. In that case, the mere fact that he is a party to the action or has a financial or proprietary interest in its outcome is sufficient to cause his automatic disqualification.

The second application of the principle is where a judge is not a party to the suit and does not have a financial interest in its outcome, but in some other way his conduct or behaviour may give rise to a suspicion that he is not impartial, for example because of his friendship with a party.

This second type of case is not strictly speaking an application of the principle that a man must not be judge in his own cause, since the judge will not normally be himself benefiting, but providing a benefit for another by failing to be impartial.

In my judgment, this case falls within the first category of case, viz. where the judge is disqualified because he is a judge in his own cause. In such a case, once it is shown that the judge is himself a party to the cause, or has a relevant interest in its subject matter, he is disqualified without any investigation into whether there was a likelihood or suspicion of bias. The mere fact of his interest is sufficient to disqualify him unless he has made sufficient disclosure.

And framed the question; “….the question then arises whether, in non-financial litigation, anything other than a financial or proprietary interest in the outcome is sufficient automatically to disqualify a man from sitting as judge in the cause.”

He opined that although the earlier cases have “all dealt with automatic disqualification on the grounds of pecuniary interest, there is no good reason in principle for so limiting automatic disqualification.”

Lord Wilkinson concluded that Amnesty International and its associate company known as A.I.C.L., had a non-pecuniary interest established that Senator Pinochet was not immune from the process of extradition. He concluded that,

“….the matter at issue does not relate to money or economic advantage but is concerned with the promotion of the cause, the rationale disqualifying a judge applies just as much if the judge’s decision will lead to the promotion of a cause in which the judge is involved together with one of the parties”

After so concluding, dealing with the last question, whether the fact that Lord Hoffman was only a member of A.I.C.L. but not a member of Amnesty International made any difference to the principle, Lord Wilkinson opined that even though a judge may not have financial interest in the outcome of a case, but in some other way his conduct or behaviour may give rise to a suspicion that he is not impartial and held that if the absolute impartiality of the judiciary is to be maintained, there must be a rule which automatically disqualifies a judge who is involved, whether personally or as a director of a company, in promoting the same causes in the same organisation as is a party to the suit. There is no room for fine distinctions. This aspect of the matter was considered in P.D. Dinakaran case.

Principle on Recusal

From the above decisions, the following principles emerge;

  • If a Judge has a financial interest in the outcome of a case, he is automatically disqualified from hearing the case.
  • In cases where the interest of the Judge in the case is other than financial, then the disqualification is not automatic but an enquiry is required whether the existence of such an interest disqualifies the Judge tested in the light of either on the principle of “real danger” or “reasonable apprehension” of bias.
  • The Pinochet case added a new category i.e that the Judge is automatically disqualified from hearing a case where the Judge is interested in a cause which is being promoted by one of the parties to the case.


Supreme Court Advocate on Record Association v. Union of India (2015)