Administrative authorities are often empowered to make decisions that affect the rights and liabilities of individuals. Though not acting in a purely judicial capacity, such authorities take on a quasi-judicial role when discharging these functions. Understanding the nature of quasi-judicial functions, how they differ from administrative and judicial functions, and the associated procedural requirements is key in administrative law. This blog analyses the characteristics, advantages and issues related to quasi-judicial functions of administrative bodies along with relevant case laws and statutory provisions.
Also Read: Notes on Administrative Law
Characteristics of Quasi-Judicial Functions
The following attributes help identify and distinguish a quasi-judicial function:
- Lis Inter Partes
A lis or dispute between two or more contesting parties is usually involved, similar to a judicial proceeding. For example, a rent tribunal determining ‘fair rent’ between a landlord and tenant.
- Provision for Administrative Appeal
Decisions of quasi-judicial bodies are often appellable to administrative appellate authorities. However, a statutory appeal provision alone may not conclusively establish the quasi-judicial nature if the appeal is intended to be administrative in nature (State of Gujarat v Shantilal Mangaldas, AIR 1969 SC 634).
- Powers akin to a Civil Court
If the body is vested with certain powers similar to those of a civil court, it indicates its quasi-judicial role. Eg. Summoning witnesses, administering oath, examining parties, etc.
- Consequences on Civil Rights and Liabilities
If the decision substantially impacts or determines civil rights and liabilities, as opposed to purely administrative outcomes, the function assumes a quasi-judicial character.
- Duty to Act Judicially
This is widely accepted as the most reliable test for recognizing a quasi-judicial function. It requires the body to objectively examine the facts and evidence while hearing parties to the lis before arriving at a reasoned decision within the letter of the law.
Administrative v Quasi and Judicial Functions
Purely administrative functions are distinguishable from judicial and quasi-judicial ones based on the below key aspects:
- Object and Purpose
Administrative actions aim to effectively and efficiently discharge governmental responsibilities, maintenance of law and order, etc. whereas judicial adjudications seek to uphold rights and dispense justice through interpretation and application of the law. Quasi-judicial decisions exhibit an overlap between the two purposes.
- Impact on Rights and Liabilities
Judicial and quasi-judicial decisions directly impact and alter rights and liabilities in personam as opposed to consequences of administrative actions which tend to be in rem.
- Manner of Disposal
Judicial disposals follow substantive and procedural laws strictly. Pure administrative adjudications are guided by departmental policies and devoid of elaborate procedures. Quasi-judicial disposals fall in between by and large adhering to principles of natural justice though not bound by strict codes of procedure and evidence.
- Discretionary Power
Administrative adjudicators enjoy greater flexibility and discretionary latitude over rights, liabilities and implementation of orders. Judicial authorities have relatively limited discretion while determining issues based on established facts and settled questions of law. Quasi-judicial authorities have an intermediary position.
Advantages of Quasi-Judicial Decision Making
Quasi-judicial mechanism in administrative adjudication brings several benefits:
- Socialization of Law
It makes rule of law concepts more accessible and applicable in spheres of governmental operation outside regular courts.
- Quick and qualitatively satisfactory remedial mechanism
Quasi-judicial redress tends to be more expeditious and contextually nuanced. It obviates the need to resort to lengthy, expensive and overworked court processes.
- Preventive rather than only curative action
It allows for timely and more effective preventive interventions when compared to post-facto judicial remedies.
- Functional approach
Quasi judicial process allows factoring in of policy considerations, contemporary developments and special circumstances – as long as judicially guided discretion is not breached. Regular courts may lack this flexibility.
- Rich experience
Quasi-judicial bodies focused on specific sectors and regulatory operations tend to gain unparalleled experience and insights over time.
Issues in Quasi-judicial Functioning
While quasi-judicial structures offer advantages, several concerns challenge their efficacy and accountability:
- Lack of uniform appeal process
One central quasi-judicial appellate body would be ideal. Instead appeals currently lie before a multitude of authorities in different areas increasing confusion.
- Inadequate reasoning and transparency
Quasi-judicial orders often lack detailed reasoning regarding facts and evidence weighing preventing effective assessment. Reasoned decisions uphold principles of fairness and justice while facilitating accountability.
- Risk of bias
Executives exercising adjudicatory powers in own administration increases the possibility of institutional bias – violating natural justice expectations of impartiality.
- Exclusion of legal representation
Disallowing party representation by legal counsel inhibits fair opportunity to present one’s case fully.
- Plea bargaining tendencies
Permitting withdrawal of complaints or proposals pending decision incentivizes extraneous pressure and other considerations contaminating objective adjudication.
The above lacunae demand greater ‘judicialization’ – importing court like safeguards without compromising the advantages of quasi-judicial processes.
- Need for quasi-judicial functions
In Mahabir Jute Mills Ltd. v S.L. Saxena (1998) 6 SCC 310, the Supreme Court took 40 years to decide the matter of wrongful dismissal of workmen highlighting the inability of regular courts to address such issues expeditiously – thus requiring quasi-judicial industrial tribunals focused on labour-management disputes.
- When enquiry permissible against quasi-judicial authority
Union of India v KK Dhawan AIR 1993 SC 1769 laid down that quasi-judicial authorities must not be interfered with or subjected to disciplinary enquiries unless recklessness, misconduct or mala fides in performance of duties is prima facie evident. Principles of independence of quasi-judicial functioning require reasonable threshold conditions to be met for initiating enquiry proceedings.
- Constitutional validity of statutory administrative tribunals
Court struck down clauses in Administrative Tribunal Act 1985 excluding jurisdiction of constitutional courts (S.P. Sampath v Union of India AIR 1987 SC 386) while also holding Tribunal members not to be judges and their decrees not judicial orders (State of T.N. v T. Valsaraj AIR 1996 SC 3032). This exemplifies stringent review by judiciary regarding legislative attempts to replace it with statutory quasi-judicial bodies. Need for course correction where quasi-judicial model compromises principles of constitutional justice.
Quasi-judicial set up attempts to infuse adjudicatory flavour into administrative decision making while retaining executive discretion appropriate for public administration. However, the ongoing tug of war between contending considerations with judicial primacy keeps quasi-judicial mechanisms precariously balanced. Addressing structural, functional and attitudinal limitations besieging quasi-judiciary remains imperative for a mutually respectful and productive administrative jurisprudence. Ability to harmoniously blend policy sensitivity with judicially tested procedural robustness will define the future evolution of quasi-justice in administrative governance.