Court, India, Stories

Review: SC Rules That Precise Cause of a Fire Remains Immaterial, Provided Claimant is Not the Instigator


In this edition of Court judgements review, we look at the Supreme Court’s judgement on Governor’s role as Chancellor, insurance on fire accidents, Madras High Court’s judgement on right to protest, Kerala High Court’s decision on Lok Adalat’s award, and Allahabad High Court’s judgement on DNA test.

Supreme Court: Governor as a Chancellor of a State University must act independently, and Law does not recognise any such extra constitutional interference in the exercise of statutory discretion.

In Dr Premchandran Keezhoth & Anr vs. The Chancellor Kannur University & Ors, the Supreme Court remarked that the Chancellor plays an important role in the appointment of the Vice-Chancellor and his decision must be of independent application of mind. Any interference in this aspect amounts to unwarranted intervention.

The apex court bench comprising CJI DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra was hearing an appeal against the re-appointment of the Vice-Chancellor of Kannur University. It was earlier rejected twice by the single and division bench of the Kerala High Court. Dr. Gopinath Ravindran was appointed as the Vice-Chancellor on 24 November 2017, and his tenure was four years. As the tenure was coming towards the end, the Chancellor/Governor issued a notification to constitute a Selection Committee of three members. Subsequently, applications were invited from eligible members. Post this notification, the Minister for Higher Education and Social Justice in her capacity as the Pro-Chancellor addressed a letter to the Governor/Chancellor dated 22 November 2021 recommending reappointment of the same Vice-Chancellor. In pursuance of this letter, the notification inviting candidates was recalled, and the Governor/Chancellor reappointed the Vice-Chancellor on 24 November 2021.

This was challenged on the following two aspects, as per the Kannur University Act, 1996.

The appellants submitted that there is no distinction between appointment and re-appointment as recognised under the service law jurisprudence, and if the judgements are upheld, then it follows that a person can be reappointed even though there may be better qualified and more deserving candidates eligible and qualified to hold the office. This obviously is not the letter and spirit of the Kannur University Act and the UGC Regulations.

Hearing arguments from all respondents, the apex court formulated the below questions of law.

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On the question of permissibility of re-appointment, the apex court held that re-appointment is permitted based on settled principles of law. Reappointment is primarily for two reasons- the first being ‘retention’, where the incumbent performs extraordinarily, and such a person needs to be given such opportunity. The second reason is the nature of the post, where the organization or institution may not be in a position to fill up the post in a time-bound manner.

On the question of age limit for re-appointment and the method of re-appointment, the apex court held that re-appointment is not barred by outer age limit, as the provisions of the law provide for re-appointment. Setting an age-limit for reappointment would narrow the scope as the selection committee in such case would be inclined to consider younger candidates over older and possibly more qualified and experienced ones who may be more suitable. The Court relied on the doctrine of purposive construction.

On the question of the method of re-appointment, the court remarked that there is no need to follow the procedure of appointment again in this case, as the re-appointment is in continuance of the first time. On the question of Chancellor abdicating the authority, the court relied on the principles laid in Hardwari Lal, Rohtak vs. G.D. Tapase, Chandigarh and others. It was held that by virtue of his office as Governor, he becomes the Chancellor of the University, but while discharging the functions of his office, he does not perform any duty or exercise any power of the office of the Governor individually. However, while discharging the functions as a Chancellor, he does every act in his discretion as Chancellor, and he does not act on the aid and advice of his Council of Ministers.

Accordingly, the notification of re-appointment of Vice-Chancellor is quashed.

Supreme Court: Precise cause of a fire, whether attributed to a short-circuit or any alternative factor, remains immaterial, provided the claimant is not the instigator of the fire.

In New India Assurance Co Ltd vs. M/S Mudit Roadways, the apex court held that the precise origin of the fire doesn’t matter if the insured isn’t the one instigating it. The insurance company remains liable unless there’s evidence suggesting the insured caused the fire, regardless of the fire’s actual cause.

The Supreme Court, with Justices Hrishikesh Roy and Sanjay Karol presiding, was hearing an appeal against the NCDRC’s order directing an Insurance Company to pay over 6 crores for a fire insurance claim. This claim, stemming from a warehouse fire covered by an insurance policy for fire coverage and protection of custom bonded goods. Although initial reports suggested a short-circuit as the cause, a forensic report indicated sparks from rooftop welding as the probable trigger. The claim for insurance was rejected by the insurer, citing reasons including unaffected premises and increased risk due to alleged negligence in roof construction. The claimant appealed in the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC), which ruled in favour of the claimant, stating that the policy covered the warehouse, and the roofing work didn’t significantly heighten the risk under Clause 3 of the policy.  The appeal is against this judgement.

The counsel for the insured relied on the judgment in Canara Bank vs. United India Insurance Company, whereby the insurer was held liable for extending insurance irrespective of the reason for the fire, unless the insured was the instigator. The counsel for the insurer remarked that the roofing work heightened the risk and, hence not liable for payment.

Upon hearing both sides and the material evidence present, the apex court held that the roofing work did not increase the risk. It also relied on the time gap between the end of welding work and the incidence of fire. 

On the extent of liability when the exact reason for the fire is unknown, the court relied on the Canara Bank judgement and held that an insurance company’s obligation to the insured is of much greater import.

Further, the court also shed light on the foundational principles of insurance contracts. It remarked that insurance contracts are founded on the principles of good faith and commitment. Trust serves as the cornerstone, forming the essence of the insurer-insured relationship. Considering the vital role that trust plays in insurance contracts, it is important to ensure that the insurer adequately fulfils the duty that has been cast on it, by virtue of such a covenant.

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Accordingly, the appeal of the Insurance Company was dismissed.

Madras HC: Article 19(1)(b) confers right to assemble and protest peacefully without arms and such a right is the significant feature of a democratic country likewise ours.

In J Jayaraj and Others vs. The Chief Educational Officer, the Madras High Court held that the right to protest is an integral aspect of free speech and an inherent element of the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of our Constitution. Arbitrarily limiting the space for legitimate dissent must be strongly undermined with iron hands.

The single-judge bench headed by Justice Victoria Gowri was hearing petitions that challenged the memos issued by the District Educational Officer under Section 17(b) of the Tamil Nadu Civil Services (Discipline and Appeal) Rules, 1955. The charge memo alleged that teachers had congregated in front of the Government Boys Higher Secondary School, engaged in a waiting agitation by taking casual leave, and disrupted government servants. They were accused of misconduct for criticizing these acts.

The petitioners argued that the charge memo lacked thoughtful consideration. They asserted that as members of the Teachers Federation, they had protested against irregularities in finalizing the seniority list by including ineligible individuals. The petitioners further argued that they hadn’t solicited or received illegal benefits, nor had they neglected duties or demonstrated insubordination or actions involving moral wrongdoing. Therefore, they contended that the action taken was unlawful, arbitrary, and violated Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution. 

The respondents argued that the petitioners had incited other teachers during critical times—when students were preparing for the 12th standard exams and during the revision examinations for the 11th standard. Additionally, it was claimed that the petitioners had disrupted the school environment by using loudspeakers and caused a law-and-order problem on the Trichy Highway by using inappropriate language against Education Department Officers.

Upon hearing both sides, the court looked at the provisions of 17(b) of the above rules. The court remarked that careful consideration of it does not show any penal offence on the part of the petitioners.

The court further remarked that peacefully demonstrating serves as an avenue for the petitioners to express their grievance against the unlawful and disorderly exercise of authority by the Education Department Officers in Karur District, aiming for their grievances to be heard by relevant authorities. As members of the Teachers Federation, the petitioners possess an unbounded entitlement to peacefully protest without weapons, a right safeguarded under Article 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(b) of our Constitution. In a democratic setup, democracy is represented by the visible expression of a group’s sentiments. Peaceful and well-organized protests are privileges guaranteed to citizens in every democratic society.

Accordingly, the proceedings of the charge memos are quashed.

Kerala HC: Mere breach of procedures isn’t enough to invalidate the Lok Adalat’s settlement award.

The Kerala High Court, in Babumon K.G. vs. State of Kerala & Ors, held that procedural violation cannot be a sufficient ground for invalidating the settlement award passed by Lok Adalat. 

A division Bench, consisting of Justice A. Muhamed Mustaque and Justice Shoba Annamma Eapen, was hearing an intra-court appeal against a ruling in a Lok Adalat organized by the Taluk Legal Service Authority in Kochi. In this instance, the appellant/petitioner had consented to pay Rs. 10,83,808/- in two instalments during the Adalat held at the Assistant Commissioner of Police Office in Mattanchery. The award was issued on 21 January 2019. The appellant has raised two grounds for contesting the decision: one revolves around a procedural breach, and the other pertains to an alleged threat by the third respondent, compelling the appellant/petitioner to sign the award.

Upon hearing the matters from both parties, the court remarked that the appellant had approached this Court through a Writ Petition utilizing Article 226 of the Indian Constitution. The scope of judicial review is defined within the Constitution itself. It permitted the appeal through judicial review adheres strictly to the parameters outlined in Article 226 of the Constitution of India, and nothing more.

Looking at the facts of the case, the court observed that procedural violations that impact jurisdiction might warrant the court’s intervention in an Award, but merely violating procedures won’t suffice to invalidate the award. To nullify the award, it must be proven that the authority lacked competence under any other provisions to hold the Adalat and issue such an Award. 

Accordingly, the appeal was dismissed.

Allahabad HC: A DNA test cannot be in a routine matter, especially when there’s already substantial legal evidence available to determine the date of birth.

The Allahabad High Court, in Smt. Mobin And Another vs. Dy. Director of Consolidation And six others, held that a matriculation certificate or birth certificate issued from School would be considered to be the best evidence to determine the date of birth of a person, and in such circumstances, DNA tests are not needed. 

The single-judge bench comprising Justice Saurabh Shyam Shamshery was hearing a petition arising out of proceedings initiated under Section 9A(2) of U.P. Consolidation of Holdings Act, 1953. The factual background of the case is as follows- the land in dispute belonged to Yakoob, who had three sons: Shakeel, Jameel, and Furkan. Shakeel, the eldest son, married Petitioner-1, Smt. Mobin, on 01 March 1997, but tragically passed away on 27 July 1997. The Petitioner claimed that a daughter (Petitioner-2) was born from this marriage.

The opposing respondents contended that the daughter was born from Petitioner-wife’s second marriage after Shakeel’s death. Additionally, they alleged that since the petitioner-wife didn’t care for Shakeel while he was alive, he created a Will favouring the contesting respondents, his two brothers. The petitioners’ attempts to challenge these assertions were unsuccessful across all three authorities: the Consolidation Officer, Settlement Officer of Consolidation, and Deputy Director of Consolidation.

While the petitioners argued that a DNA test may be ordered to prove the parentage, the respondents disagreed with this as there was a matriculation certificate to prove the date of birth.

The court, upon hearing both parties looked at the provisions of the Juvenile Justice (care and protection of children) Act, 2015. The Act of 2015 became effective on 15 January 2016. Section 111 nullifies the previous Act of 2000 but specifies that despite this nullification, any previous actions or proceedings conducted under the previous Acts shall be considered as if they were carried out under the equivalent provisions of the new law. Section 94 of the act provides the provisions for the determination of age. 

It further relied on the apex court decision in Sanjeev Kumar Gupta vs. State of U.P, wherein it was held that the matriculation certificate is given precedence in the order specified in section 94. It is in the absence of a matriculation certificate that the date of birth certificate of the school first attended, can be relied upon. 

Further, on the request of petitioners for a DNA test, the court relied on Aparna Ajinkya Firodia vs. Ajinkya Arun Firodia, wherein it was held that the DNA test could not be passed in a routine manner and should be used sparingly in extraordinary circumstances. The court should also bear in mind the consequences of DNA test before passing any such orders.

Accordingly, as established in Aparna Ajinkya Firodia, the decision to conduct a DNA test cannot be a standard procedure. It should only be ordered in exceptional situations when there are no other legal means available to establish the parentage of the individual. In this case, a document recognized as valid legal proof for determining the date of birth, such as a matriculation certificate, exists. Hence, there is no necessity or justification to issue an order for a DNA test.

Accordingly, the writ petition was dismissed.


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