Principles of Natural Justice and Administrative Law

Natural justice refers to the basic principles of fair procedure that should be followed by administrative authorities while making decisions that affect rights of individuals. The principles of natural justice ensure that the process of decision making is fair and reasonable. These principles are deeply rooted in common law and form an integral part of administrative law in India.

The three main pillars of natural justice are:

  1. Nemo judex in causa sua: No one should be a judge in his own cause
  2. Audi alteram partem: Hear the other side
  3. Reasoned Decision

These principles are flexible and their application depends on the facts and circumstances of each case. They apply not only to quasi-judicial functions but also to administrative and executive functions to a limited extent, especially where such functions affect rights of individuals.

Also Read: Notes on Administrative Law

Rule Against Bias

The rule against bias flows from the maxim nemo judex in causa sua which means that no person can be the judge in his own cause. It requires that the authority deciding a case must not be biased in favor of one party and against the other. The test is whether there is a reasonable apprehension in the mind of one party that the decision making authority will be biased.

The Supreme Court has laid down that justice should not only be done, but it must manifestly appear to be done. The appearance of bias is sufficient to vitiate the decision even if there is no actual bias. If right minded persons reasonably apprehend bias, then such apprehension is conclusive evidence of likelihood of bias.

There are several forms of bias:

  1. Personal bias: Where the deciding authority has some personal interest in the outcome of the proceedings or is related to one of the parties. Presence of personal bias renders the decision void.
  2. Pecuniary bias: Where the deciding authority has some financial or monetary interest in the proceedings. Even a small pecuniary interest is enough to disqualify the authority if there is a reasonable likelihood that it will influence the decision.
  3. Bias as to subject matter: Mere support or opposition to some ideology or philosophy by itself does not indicate bias unless the authority has predetermined the case due to such reasons. Courts usually do not interfere on grounds of subject matter bias alone unless evidence shows the authority had a closed mind.
  4. Departmental bias: Possibility of bias in favor of a government department over private citizens. But mere fact that decision making authority belongs to same department is not enough. There must be real likelihood of bias.
  5. Pre-conceived notion bias: Mere holding of an opinion or belief on some issue does not disqualify an authority from deciding a case. One cannot expect authorities to have blank minds. There must be real likelihood that the pre-conceived notions will adversely affect fair hearing.

Right to Fair Hearing

Audi alteram partem is the second principle of natural justice which means that no one should be condemned unheard. Both sides must be heard before passing an order affecting rights of parties. The components of fair hearing are:

  1. Right to notice: Adequate and proper notice must be given to the affected party before initiating action. The notice must clearly set out the charges and mention the action proposed to be taken. Ambiguous notice leads to denial of reasonable opportunity.
  2. Right to legal representation: Presence of lawyers is generally not integral to administrative hearings. But right to legal representation may be necessary in certain situations depending on facts of each case e.g. where one has to face criminal charges or the matter involves complex questions of law.
  3. Right to present case: A reasonable opportunity must be afforded enabling the affected party to effectively present its case including written submissions and oral arguments. What constitutes reasonable opportunity depends on facts of each case.
  4. Right to rebut evidence: Any material or evidence brought on record by opposite party must be disclosed and reasonable opportunity given to rebut such evidence. This includes right to cross examine witnesses. Reliance on evidence collected behind the back of a party is breach of natural justice.

Right to Reasoned Decision

In addition to the twin pillars of natural justice i.e. nemo judex in causa sua and audi alteram partem, administrative law jurisprudence has evolved a third principle requiring reasoned decisions from authorities exercising quasi-judicial functions.

The basis for such a right can be found in Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution which mandate fairness, non-arbitrariness and justness in State actions. An unreasoned order is an arbitrary order as one does not know the rationale behind such order or what material was considered while arriving at the decision.

The Supreme Court has read an implied duty to give reasoned decisions while exercising statutory power which (a) affects fundamental rights of citizens; (b) imposes penal consequences; or (c) determines rights and liabilities of parties. Reasons provide the link between the decision and the mind of the decision maker.

The right to reasoned order has the following implications:

  1. Where statute requires, the authority must record reasons in support of its decision. This requirement cannot be dispensed with.
  2. Even where the statute does not require reasons, reasons may still have to be given in line with principles of natural justice under Article 14 and 21 especially in cases involving civil liberties and penalties. However, reasons need not be elaborate.
  3. If one statutory authority records detailed reasons and the decision is affirmed by the appellate authority, the appellate authority need not give detailed reasons again. Concurrence with reasons given by lower authority is sufficient.
  4. The concept of reasoned orders is an evolving jurisprudence. In exceptional situations it may be relaxed if adherence will obstruct or delay actions in public interest. The touchstone is balancing administrative efficiency with basic fairness.

Thus, there exists a general rule requiring administrative authorities to pass reasoned orders so that citizens can understand the rationale behind the orders affecting their rights and liberties. However, exceptions can be made based on legitimate goals where giving detailed reasons is not feasible or will impede public administration.

Exceptions to Natural Justice

The principles of natural justice are not absolute. Courts have carved out exceptions where adherence to such principles is not required depending on justifiability and necessity:

  1. Emergencies: Requirement of hearing may be excluded when prompt action is required to cope with emergent situations. But such exclusion must be proportional to the need i.e. only to the extent absolutely necessary.
  2. Confidential matters: Principles of natural justice have no application in matters of confidential and classified information related to national security, defence etc. Disclosure may be against public interest.
  3. Impracticability: Where it is impractical or impossible to give hearing the rule may be excluded e.g. riots, natural disasters requiring immediate action.
  4. Statutory exclusion: Principles of natural justice apply unless expressly or impliedly excluded by a statute. Such exclusion must be strictly interpreted.
  5. Where hearing is meaningless: If the affected party has nothing useful to say or hearing would be an empty formality, the right to hearing may be denied.

Effect of Violation of Natural Justice

Failure to comply with principles of natural justice renders the decision or order void and not voidable. Such decisions are nullities and non-est in the eye of law. They have no existence in law and thus no legal consequences.

Even when natural justice is excluded by statute, violation of basic principles of fair hearing may still invalidate decisions under Article 14 or 21 especially when such violation leads to arbitrariness or unreasonableness. Principles of natural justice have constitutional foundations and form part of basic structure of the Constitution. They cannot be arbitrarily violated without legitimate public purpose even by a statute.


Principles of natural justice underpin fair decision making in administration. They inject an element of rationality and protect against arbitrary exercise of power. Courts have expanded the horizons of natural justice to uphold rule of law and reasonableness in State actions underlining its dynamic nature. However, at the same time, exclusion of such principles is justified in certain exceptional situations. The question in each case is one of proportion. The extent of exclusion must have a reasonable nexus with the objective sought to be achieved.

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