Section 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure which enacts the general rule of res judicata, insofar as it is relevant, provides:
“No Court shall try any suit or issue in which the matter directly and substantially in issue has been directly and substantially in issue in a former suit between the same parties, or between parties under whom they or any of them claim litigating under the same title, in a Court competent to try such subsequent suit or the suit in which such issue has been subsequently raised, and has been heard and finally decided by such Court.”
Doctrine of Res judicata is a rule of procedure
The doctrine of res judicata belongs to the domain of procedure. A decision of a competent Court on a matter in issue may be res judicata in another proceeding between the same parties: the “matter in issue” may be an issue of fact, an issue of law, or one of mixed law and fact.
An issue of fact or an issue of mixed law and fact decided by a competent court is finally determined between the parties and cannot be re-opened between them in another proceeding. The previous decision on a matter in issue alone is res judicata: the reasons for the decision are not res judicata. A matter in issue between the parties is the right claimed by one party and denied by the other, and the claim of right from its very nature depends upon proof of facts and application of the relevant law thereto.
A pure question of law unrelated to facts which give rise to a right, cannot be deemed to be a matter in issue. When it is said that a previous decision is res judicata, it is meant that the right claimed has been adjudicated upon and cannot again be placed in contest between the same parties. A previous decision of a competent Court on facts which are the foundation of the right and the relevant law applicable to the determination of the transaction which is the soured of the right is res judicata.
A previous decision on a matter in issue is a composite decision: the decision of law cannot be dissociated from the decision on facts on which the right is founded. A decision on an issue of law will be as res judicata in a subsequent proceeding between the same parties, if the cause of action of the subsequent Proceeding be the same as in the previous proceeding, but not when the cause of action is different, nor when the law has since the earlier decision been altered by a competent authority, nor when the decision relates to the jurisdiction of the Court to try the earlier proceeding, nor when the earlier decision declares valid a transaction which is prohibited by law.
Whether Res judicata applicable on Question of law
The authorities on the question whether a decision on a question of law operates as res- judicata disclose widely differing views. In some cases it was decided that a decision on a question of law can never be res judicata in a subsequent proceeding between the same parties: Parthasardhi Ayyangar v. Chinnakrishna Ayyangar; Chamanlal v. Bapubhai ; and Kanta Devi v. Kalawati.
On the other hand Aikman, J., in Chandi Prasad v. Maharaja Mahendra Mahendra Singh held that a decision on a question of law is always res judicata. But as observed by Rankin, C.J., in Tarini Charan Bhattacharjee v. Kedar Nath Haldar:
“Questions of law are of all kinds and cannot be dealt with as though they were all the same. Questions of procedure, questions affecting jurisdiction, questions of limitation, may all be questions of law. In such questions the rights of parties are not the only matter for consideration.”
We may analyse the illustrative cases relating to questions of law, decisions on which may be deemed res judicata in subsequent proceeding.
In Bindeshwari Charan Singh v. Bageshwari Charan Singh the Judicial Committee held that a decision of a court in a previous suit between the same parties that s. 12A of the Chota Nagpur Encumbered Estates Act 6 of 1876 which renders void a transaction to which it applies was inapplicable, was res judicata.
In that case the owner of an impartable estate, after his estate was released from management, executed a maintenance grant in favour of his minor son B, but without the sanction of the Commissioner as required by s. 12A of the, Act. B on attaining majority sued his father and brothers for a maintenance grant at the rate of Rs. 4,000 per annum. The claim was decreed, and the plaintiff was awarded a decree for a grant of Rs. 4,000 inclusive of the previous grant of 1909, and the Court held that the grant of 1909 was valid in law.
The father implemented the decree and made an additional maintenance grant upto the value of the decreed sum. In an action by the sons of B’s brothers challenging the two grants on the plea that the grants were illegal and not binding upon them, the Judicial Committee held that the plea was barred as res judicata in respect of both the grants-in respect of the first because there was an express decision on the validity of the first grant in the earlier suit, and in respect of the second the decision in the first suit was res judicata as to the validity of the second grant which was made in fulfillment of the obligation under the Court’s decision.
The Judicial Committee held that in respect of the first grant, the decision that s. 12A did not apply to the grant, was res judicata, and in respect of the second grant the construction between the same parties of s. 12A was res judicata. Validity of the second grant was never adjudicated upon in any previous suit; the second grant was held valid because between the parties it was decided that to the grant of maintenance of an impartible zamindari s. 12A of the Chota Nagpur Encumbered Estates Act had no application. This part of the judgment of the Judicial Committee is open to doubt.
Where the law is altered since the earlier decision, the earlier decision will not operate as res judicata between the same parties: [Tarini Charan Bhattacharjee’s case].
In a case relating to levy of tax a decision valuing property or determining liability to tax in a different taxable period or event is binding only in that period or event, and is not binding in the subsequent years, and therefore the rule of, res judicata has no application; [Broken Hill Proprietary Company Ltd. v. Municipal Council of Broken Hill(1925)]
A question unrelated to the rights of parties does not constitute as res judicata
A question of jurisdiction of the Court, or of procedure, or a pure question of law unrelated to the right of the parties to a previous suit, is not res judicata in the subsequent suit.
Rankin, observed in Tarini Charan Bhattacharjee’s case (supra):
“The object of the doctrine of res judicata is not to fasten upon parties special principles of law as applicable to them inter se, but to ascertain their rights and the facts upon which these rights directly and substantially depend; and to prevent this ascertainment from becoming nugatory by precluding the parties from reopening or recontesting that which has ‘been finally decided.”
The Supreme court in ‘Mathura Prasad Bajoo Jaisawal v Dosibhai N. B. Jeejeebhoy (1970)’ decided that,
- “A question relating to the jurisdiction of a Court cannot be deemed to have been finally determined by an erroneous decision of the Court. If by an erroneous interpretation of the statute the Court holds that it has no jurisdiction, the question would not, in our judgment, operate as res judicata.
- Similarly by an erroneous decision if the Court assumes jurisdiction which it does not possess under the statute, the question cannot operate as res judicata bet- ween the same parties, whether the cause of action in the subsequent litigation is the same or otherwise.
- It is true that in determining the application of the rule of res judicata the Court is not concerned with the correctness or otherwise of the earlier judgment. The matter in issue, if it is one purely of fact, decided-in the earlier proceeding by a competent court must in a subsequent litigation between the same parties be regarded as finally decided and cannot be, reopened.
- A mixed question of law and fact determined in the earlier proceeding between the same parties may not, for the same reason, be questioned a subsequent proceeding between the same parties.
- But, where the decision is on a question law, i.e. the interpretation of a statute, it will be res judicata in a subsequent proceeding between the same parties where the cause of action is the same for the expression “the matter in issue” in s. 11 Code of Civil Procedure means the right litigated between the parties, i.e. the facts on which the right is claimed or denied and the law applicable to the determination of that issue.
- Where, however, the question is one purely of law and it relates to the jurisdiction of the Court or a decision of the Court sanctioning something which is illegal, by resort to the rule of res judicata a party affected by the decision will not be precluded from challenging the validity of that order under the rule of res judicata for a rule of procedure cannot supersede the law of the land.”
Mathura Prasad Bajoo Jaisawal v. Dossibhai N.B. Jeejeebhoy (1970)
 I.L.R. 5 Mad. 304.
 ILR, 22 Bom. 669
 A.I.R.  Lah. 419
 (1902) ILR 24 All 112
 AIR 1928 Cal 777
 (1936) 38 BOMLR 339
 AIR 1928 Cal 777