Writ of Certiorari

According to Corpus Juris Secundum (Vol.14, page 121) certiorari is a writ issued from a superior court to an inferior court or tribunal commanding the latter to send up the record of a particular case.

H.W.R. Wade & C.F. Forsyth define certiorari in these words: –

“Certiorari is used to bring up into the High Court the decision of some inferior tribunal or authority in order that it may be investigated. If the decision does not pass the test, it is quashed that is to say, it is declared completely invalid, so that no one need respect it.

The underlying policy is that all inferior courts and authorities have only limited jurisdiction or powers and must be kept within their legal bounds. Certiorari would issue to call up the records of justices of the peace and commissioners for examination in the King’s Bench and for quashing if any legal defect was found. At first there was much quashing for defects of form on the record, i.e. for error on the face. Later, as the doctrine of ultra vires developed, that became the dominant principle of control.”

Nature and scope of the writ of certiorari

The nature and scope of the writ of certiorari and when can it issue was beautifully set out in a concise passage, quoted hereafter, by Lord Chancellor Viscount Simon in Ryots of Garabandho and other villages Vs. Zamindar of Parlakimedi and Anr. AIR 1943 PC 164.

“The ancient writ of certiorari in England is an original writ which may issue out of a superior Court requiring that the record of the proceedings in some cause or matter pending before an inferior Court should be transmitted into the superior Court to be there dealt with. The writ is so named because, in its original Latin form, it required that the King should “be certified” of the proceedings to be investigated, and the object is to secure by the exercise of the authority of a superior Court, that the jurisdiction of the inferior tribunal should be properly exercised.

This writ does not issue to correct purely executive acts, but, on the other hand, its application is not narrowly limited to inferior “Courts” in the strictest sense. Broadly speaking, it may be said that if the act done by the inferior body is a judicial act, as distinguished from being a ministerial act, certiorari will lie. The remedy, in point of principle, is derived from the superintending authority which the Sovereign’s Superior Courts, and in particular the Court of King’s Bench, possess and exercise over inferior jurisdictions. This principle has been transplanted to other parts of the King’s dominions, and operates, within certain limits, in British India.”

Article 226

Article 226 of the Constitution of India preserves to the High Court power to issue writ of certiorari amongst others. The principles on which the writ of certiorari is issued are well-settled. It would suffice for our purpose to quote from the 7-Judge Bench decision of this Court in Hari Vishnu Kamath Vs. Ahmad Ishaque and Ors. (1955) 1 SCR 1104. The four propositions laid down therein were summarized by the Constitution Bench in The Custodian of Evacuee Property Bangalore Vs. Khan Saheb Abdul Shukoor etc. (1961) 3 SCR 855 as under :-

“the High Court was not justified in looking into the order of December 2, 1952, as an appellate court, though it would be justified in scrutinizing that order as if it was brought before it under Article 226 of the Constitution for issue of a writ of certiorari. The limit of the jurisdiction of the High Court in issuing writs of certiorari was considered by this Court in Hari Vishnu Kamath Vs. Ahmad Ishaque, AIR 1955 SC 233) and the following four propositions were laid down: –

“(1) Certiorari will be issued for correcting errors of jurisdiction;

(2) Certiorari will also be issued when the Court or Tribunal acts illegally in the exercise of its undoubted jurisdiction, as when it decides without giving an opportunity to the parties to be heard, or violates the principles of natural justice;

(3) The court issuing a writ of certiorari acts in exercise of a supervisory and not appellate jurisdiction. One consequence of this is that the court will not review findings of fact reached by the inferior court or tribunal, even if they be erroneous.

(4) An error in the decision or determination itself may also be amenable to a writ of certiorari if it is a manifest error apparent on the face of the proceedings, e.g., when it is based on clear ignorance or disregard of the provisions of law. In other words, it is a patent error which can be corrected by certiorari but not a mere wrong decision.”

In the initial years the Supreme Court was not inclined to depart from the traditional role of certiorari jurisdiction and consistent with the historical background felt itself bound by such procedural technicalities as were well-known to the English judges. In later years the Supreme Court has relaxed the procedural and technical rigours, yet the broad and fundamental principles governing the exercise of jurisdiction have not been given a go-by.

Parameters for the exercise of jurisdiction

In the exercise of certiorari jurisdiction, the High Court proceeds on an assumption that a Court which has jurisdiction over a subject- matter has the jurisdiction to decide wrongly as well as rightly. The High Court would not, therefore, for the purpose of certiorari assign to itself the role of an Appellate Court and step into re-appreciating or evaluating the evidence and substitute its own findings in place of those arrived at by the inferior court.

In Nagendra Nath Bora & Anr. Vs. Commissioner of Hills Division and Appeals, Assam & Ors., (1958) SCR 1240, the parameters for the exercise of jurisdiction, calling upon the issuance of writ of certiorari where so set out by the Constitution Bench:

“The Common law writ, now called the order of certiorari, which has also been adopted by our Constitution, is not meant to take the place of an appeal where the Statute does not confer a right of appeal. Its purpose is only to determine, on an examination of the record, whether the inferior tribunal has exceeded its jurisdiction or has not proceeded in accordance with the essential requirements of the law which it was meant to administer. Mere formal or technical errors, even though of law, will not be sufficient to attract this extra-ordinary jurisdiction.

Where the errors cannot be said to be errors of law apparent on the face of the record, but they are merely errors in appreciation of documentary evidence or affidavits, errors in drawing inferences or omission to draw inference or in other words errors which a court sitting as a court of appeal only, could have examined and, if necessary, corrected and the appellate authority under a statute in question has unlimited jurisdiction to examine and appreciate the evidence in the exercise of its appellate or revisional jurisdiction and it has not been shown that in exercising its powers the appellate authority disregarded any mandatory provisions of the law but what can be said at the most was that it had disregarded certain executive instructions not having the force of law, there is not case for the exercise of the jurisdiction under Article 226.”

The Constitution Bench in T.C. Basappa Vs. T. Nagappa & Anr., (1955) 1 SCR 250, held that certiorari may be and is generally granted when a court has acted (i) without jurisdiction, or (ii) in excess of its jurisdiction. The want of jurisdiction may arise from the nature of the subject-matter of the proceedings or from the absence of some preliminary proceedings or the court itself may not have been legally constituted or suffering from certain disability by reason of extraneous circumstances.

Certiorari may also issue if the court or tribunal though competent has acted in flagrant disregard of the rules or procedure or in violation of the principles of natural justice where no particular procedure is prescribed. An error in the decision or determination itself may also be amenable to a writ of certiorari subject to the following factors being available if the error is manifest and apparent on the face of the proceedings such as when it is based on clear ignorance or disregard of the provisions of law but a mere wrong decision is not amenable to a writ of certiorari.

Any authority or body of persons constituted by law or having legal authority to adjudicate upon questions affecting the rights of a subject and enjoined with a duty to act judicially or quasi-judicially is amenable to the certiorari jurisdiction of the High Court. The proceedings of judicial courts subordinate to High Court can be subjected to certiorari. While dealing with the question whether the orders and the proceedings of subordinate Court are amenable to certiorari writ jurisdiction of the High Court, we would be failing in our duty if we do not make a reference to a larger Bench and a Constitution Bench decisions of this Court and clear a confusion lest it should arise at some point of time.

Supreme Court in ‘Surya dev Rai v. Ram Chander Rai, (2003)’, held that,

“Thus, there is no manner of doubt that the orders and proceedings of a judicial court subordinate to High Court are amenable to writ jurisdiction of High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution.”

Error apparent on face of record

Authority in abundance is available for the proposition that an error apparent on face of record can be corrected by certiorari. The broad working rule for determining what is a patent error or an error apparent on the face of the record was well set out in Satyanarayan Laxminarayan Hegde and Ors. Vs. Mallikarjun Bhavanappa Tirumale, (1960) 1 SCR 890.

It was held that the alleged error should be self-evident. An error which needs to be established by lengthy and complicated arguments or an error in a long-drawn process of reasoning on points where there may conceivably be two opinions cannot be called a patent error. In a writ of certiorari, the High Court may quash the proceedings of the tribunal, authority or court but may not substitute its own findings or directions in lieu of one given in the proceedings forming the subject-matter of certiorari. Certiorari jurisdiction though available is not to be exercised as a matter of course.

The High Court would be justified in refusing the writ of certiorari if no failure of justice has been occasioned. In exercising the certiorari jurisdiction, the procedure ordinarily followed by the High Court is to command the inferior court or tribunal to certify its record or proceedings to the High Court for its inspection so as to enable the High Court to determine whether on the face of the record the inferior court has committed any of the preceding errors occasioning failure of justice.


Surya dev Rai v. Ram Chandar Rai, (2003)