Parens Patriae in Latin means “parent of the nation”.  In law, it refers to the power of the State to intervene against an abusive or negligent parent, legal guardian or informal caretaker, and to act as the parent of any child or individual who is   in   need   of   protection. “The parens patriae jurisdiction   is sometimes spoken of as ‘supervisory’”.

The doctrine of Parens Patriae has its origin in the United Kingdom in the 13th  century.   It implies that the King as the guardian   of   the   nation   is   under   obligation   to   look   after   the interest of those who are unable to look after themselves.

Lindley L.J.   in  Thomasset  v. Thomasset[1] pointed   out   that   in   the exercise of the Parens Patriae jurisdiction, “the rights of fathers and legal guardians were always respected, but controlled to an extent unknown at common law by considering the real welfare.” The duty of the King in feudal times to act as Parens Patriae has been taken over in modern times by the State.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines ‘Parens Patriae’ as: ¬

“1. The State regarded as a sovereign; the state in its capacity as provider of protection to those unable to care for themselves.

2. A   doctrine   by   which   a   government   has standing   to   prosecute   a   lawsuit   on   behalf   of   a citizen,   especially   on   behalf   of   someone   who   is under a legal disability to prosecute the suit.  The State ordinarily has no standing to sue on behalf of its citizens, unless a separate, sovereign interest will be served by the suit.”

In Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India[2], the Constitution Bench, while delving upon the concept of parens patriae, stated: ¬

“35. … In the “Words and Phrases” Permanent Edition, Vol. 33 at page 99, it is stated that parens patriae is the inherent power and authority of a legislature to provide   protection   to   the   person   and   property   of persons  non   sui   juris,   such   as   minor,   insane,   and incompetent   persons,   but   the   words  parens   patriae meaning   thereby   ‘the   father   of   the   country’,   were applied originally to the King and are used to designate the   State   referring   to   its   sovereign   power   of guardinaship over persons under disability. (emphasis supplied) 

Parens   patriae  jurisdiction,   it   has   been explained, is the right of the sovereign and imposes a duty   on   sovereign,   in   public   interest,   to   protect persons   under   disability   who   have   no   rightful protector. The connotation of the term parens patriae differs   from   country   to   country,   for   instance,   in England it is the King, in America it is the people, etc. The Government is within its duty to protect and to control   persons   under   disability.   Conceptually,   the parens patriae theory is the obligation of the State to protect   and   takes   into   custody   the   rights   and   the privileges of its citizens for dischargings its obligations.

Our Constitution makes it imperative for the State to secure to all its citizens the rights guaranteed by the Constitution   and   where   the   citizens   are   not   in   a position to assert and secure their rights, the State must come into picture and protect and fight for the rights of the citizens. …”

In Anuj Garg and Others v. Hotel Association of India and   others[3],   a   two-Judge   Bench,   while   dealing   with   the constitutional validity of Section 30 of the Punjab Excise Act, 1914 prohibiting employment of “any man under the age of 25 years” or “any woman” in any part of such premises in which liquor or intoxicating drug is consumed by the public, opined thus in the context of the parens patriae power of the State:¬

“29. One important justification to Section 30 of the Act is parens patriae power of State. It is a considered fact that use of parens patriae power is not entirely beyond the pale of judicial scrutiny.

30. Parens patriae power has only been able to gain definitive   legalist   orientation   as   it   shifted   its underpinning   from   being   merely  moralist  to   a   more objective grounding i.e.  utility.

The subject matter of the   parens   patriae   power   can   be   adjudged   on   two counts:

(i) in terms of its necessity, and

(ii) assessment of any trade-off or adverse impact, if any.

This inquiry gives the doctrine an objective orientation and   therefore   prevents   it   from   falling   foul   of   due process challenge. (See City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center[4])”

Analysing further, the Court ruled that the  parens patriae power is  subject  to constitutional  challenge  on  the  ground of right to privacy also. It took note of the fact that young men and women know what would be the best offer for them in the service sector and in the age of internet, they would know all pros and cons of a profession.  The Court proceeded to state:¬

“31.   …   It   is   their   life;   subject   to   constitutional, statutory   and   social   interdicts—a   citizen   of   India should be allowed to live her life on her own terms.”

Emphasizing on the right of self-determination, the Court held:¬

“34. The fundamental tension between autonomy and security   is   difficult   to   resolve.   It   is   also   a   tricky jurisprudential issue. Right to self-determination is an important offshoot of gender justice discourse. At the same time, security and protection  to carry out such choice or option specifically, and state of violence free being generally is another tenet of the same movement. In fact, the latter is apparently a more basic value in comparison to right to options in the feminist matrix.”

In  Aruna  Ramachandra  Shanbaug  v.  Union  of   India[5], the Court, after dealing with the decision  in State of Kerala v. N.M.  Thomas[6]  wherein it has been stated by Mathew, J. that “the Court also is ‘State’ within the meaning of Article 12 (of the Constitution)  …” opined: ¬

“130. In our opinion, in the case of an incompetent person who is unable to take a decision whether to withdraw life support or not, it is the Court alone, as parens   patriae,   which   ultimately   must   take   this decision,   though,   no   doubt,   the   views   of   the   near relatives, next friend and doctors must be given due weight.”

Constitutional   Courts   in   this   country   exercise parens patriae jurisdiction   in   matters   of   child   custody   treating   the welfare   of   the   child   as   the   paramount   concern.     There   are situations when the Court can invoke the parens patriae principle and   the   same   is   required   to   be   invoked   only   in   exceptional situations. 

For example, where a person is mentally ill and is produced before the court in a writ of habeas corpus, the court may invoke the aforesaid doctrine. 

On certain other occasions, when a girl who is not a major has eloped with a person and she is produced at the behest of habeas corpus filed by her parents and she expresses fear of life in the custody of her parents, the court may exercise the jurisdiction to send her to an appropriate home meant to give shelter to women where her interest can be best taken care of till she becomes a major.

In Heller v. Doe[7], Justice Kennedy, speaking for the U.S. Supreme Court, observed:¬

“The State has a legitimate interest under its Parens Patriae powers in providing care to its citizens who are unable to care for themselves.”

The Supreme Court of Canada in E. (Mrs.) v. Eve[8] observed thus with regard to the doctrine of Parens Patriae:¬

“The  Parens Patriae  jurisdiction for the care of the mentally   incompetent   is   vested   in   the   provincial superior   courts.     Its   exercise   is   founded   on necessity.   The  need  to  act for the  protection  of those   who   cannot   care   for   themselves. The jurisdiction is broad.   Its scope cannot be defined. It applies to many and varied situations, and a court can act not only if injury has occurred but also if it is   apprehended.   

The   jurisdiction   is   carefully guarded and the courts will not assume that it has been removed by legislation. While the scope of the parens partiae jurisdiction is unlimited,   the   jurisdiction   must   nonetheless   be exercised   in   accordance   with   its   underlying principle.     The   discretion   given   under   this jurisdiction is to be exercised for the benefit of the person in need of protection and not for the benefit of others.  

It must at all times be exercised with great caution, a caution that must increase with the seriousness of the matter.  This is particularly so in cases   where   a   court   might   be   tempted   to   act because   failure   to   act   would   risk   imposing   an obviously heavy burden on another person.”

The High Court of Australia in Secretary, Department of Health   and   Community   Service   v.   J.W.B.   and   S.M.B.[9] , speaking through Mason C.J., Dawson, Toohey and Gaudron JJ., has made the following observations with regard to the doctrine:¬

“71. No doubt the jurisdiction over infants is for the most part supervisory in the sense that the courts are supervising the exercise of care and control of infants by parents and guardians.  However, to say this   is   not   to   assert   that   the   jurisdiction   is essentially supervisory or that the courts are merely supervising or reviewing parental or guardian care and   control.    

As   already   explained,   the  Parens Patriae  jurisdiction   springs   from   the   direct responsibility of the Crown for those who cannot look after themselves; it includes infants as well as those of unsound mind.”

Deane J. in the same case stated the following:¬

“4… Indeed, in a modern context, it is preferable to refer to the traditional  Parens Patriae  jurisdiction as “the welfare jurisdiction” and to the “first and paramount consideration” which underlies its exercise as “the welfare principle”.”

Recently, the Supreme Court of New South Wales, in the case of AC v. OC (a minor)[10], has observed:¬

“36. That jurisdiction, protective of those who are not able to take care of themselves, embraces (via different historical routes) minors, the mentally ill and those who, though not mentally ill, are unable to manage their own affairs:  Re Eve  [1986] 2 SCR 388 at  407-417; Court of  Australia in  Secretary, Department   of   Health   and   Community   Services   v. JWB and SMB (Marion’s Case (1992) 175 CLR 218 at 258; PB v. BB [2013] NSWSC 1223 at [7]¬[8], [40]¬ [42], [57]¬[58] and [64]¬[65].

37. A   key   concept   in   the   exercise   of   that jurisdiction is that it must be exercised, both in what   is   done   and   what   is   left   undone,   for   the benefit, and in the best interest, of the person (such as a minor) in need of protection.”

Thus, the Constitutional Courts may also act as  Parens Patriae so as to meet the ends of justice.  But the said exercise of power is not without limitation.  The courts cannot in every and any case invoke the Parens Patriae doctrine.  The said doctrine has to be invoked only in exceptional cases where the parties before it are either mentally incompetent or have not come of age and it is proved to the satisfaction of the court that the said parties have either no parent/legal guardian or have an abusive or negligent parent/legal guardian.


Shafin Jahan v. KM Ashokan (2018)

[1] [1894] P 295

[2] (1990) 1 SCC 613

[3] (2008) 3 SCC 1

[4] 473 US 432, 439-41: 105 S Ct 3249 : 87 L Ed 2d 313 (1985)

[5] (2011) 4 SCC 454

[6] (1976) 2 SCC 310

[7] 509 US 312 (1993)

[8] [1986] 2 SCR 388

[9] [1992] HCA 15 (MARION’S Case) : (1992) 175 CLR 218

[10] [2014] NSWSC 53