Administrative functions refer to the residue of governmental activities that remain after legislative and judicial functions are excluded. They comprise policy making, rule making, adjudication, licensing, investigation, etc. Characteristics of such functions include a certain degree of discretion, subjectivity, flexibility in procedures and preponderance of policy considerations over strict legality.
Classification of Administrative Functions
For the purpose of judicial review, administrative functions may be broadly classified into two categories:
- Discretionary functions
- Ministerial functions
Discretionary powers involve policy oriented decision making with a wide latitude of choice in arriving at a determination. Courts normally do not interfere with the manner of exercise of such powers. Ministerial functions, on the other hand, provide little flexibility or discretion to the authority. They involve routine application of law rather than policy making. Courts can review ministerial actions on grounds of legality and propriety.
Also Read: Notes on Administrative Law
Judicial Review of Discretionary Functions
Doctrine of Ultra Vires
Discretionary powers must be exercised within the four corners of the statute conferring such powers. Any action beyond statutory boundaries is ultra vires and liable to be struck down. The doctrine of ultra vires allows courts to demarcate the scope of discretionary authority and confine them to their statutory orbit.
Grounds on which exercise of discretionary power may be challenged include:
(i) Lack of jurisdiction
(ii) Fettering of discretion
(iii) Dictation by superior authorities
(iv) Failure to exercise discretion
(v) Improper exercise on irrelevant grounds
Conferment of Discretionary Power
The first stage at which the exercise of discretion is controlled is the point of conferment itself. Wide and unfettered discretion without any standard or policy guidance violates equality under Article 14.
In State of West Bengal v Anwar Ali, the law empowered government to refer any case to special courts without prescribing any guidelines. This unguided discretion was struck down as arbitrary and discriminatory.
Conferment of discretionary authority must be guided by an intelligible differentia having rational nexus with objectives sought to be achieved. Policy guidance could be provided through statutory rules as in case of Delegated Legislation or executive instructions as held in case of Hamdard Dawakhana v Union of India.
Where discretion relates to fundamental freedoms under Article 19, reasonability of restrictions must be judged in light of guiding principles and safeguards against abuse.
Exercise of Discretionary Power
Where policy guidance exists, its actual translation into decisions constitutes the second stage vulnerable to judicial scrutiny. The grounds on which courts can interfere include:
(i) Failure to exercise discretion
(ii) Improper exercise of discretion
Failure to Exercise Discretion
This implies total abdication where authority does not apply its mind and remains oblivious to need for taking a decision. Relevant grounds include:
- Passing stereo-type orders without application of mind.
- Dictation by superior authorities contrary to rules of business.
- Delegation of powers beyond enabling provision. However, seeking assistance from subordinates is permitted.
- Imposing fetters like prototypes restricting case to case consideration.
- Premature exercise before relevant facts emerge.
- Not taking decision where coupled with a duty.
The discretion has to be exercised by the designated authority after due application of mind to facts and circumstances of each case. Any total abdication would amount to failure warranting judicial interference.
Improper Exercise of Discretion
Even where some discretion is exercised, courts can interfere if it is based on:
- Extraneous considerations having no nexus with objective
- Ignoring relevant considerations or materials
- Ultra vires exercise beyond jurisdiction
- Imposing unreasonable restrictions violating fundamental rights
- Mala fide exercise to serve oblique ends
- Harsh, oppressive and capricious decisions
Impropriety could also arise due to dictation, delegation, undue haste, abuse of purpose, etc. However, courts adopt a self-imposed reluctance to interfere with merits based on unreasonableness alone unless decisions are grossly perverse.