January 27, 2022

Doctrine of Proportionality in Administrative Law

administrative law

What is Doctrine of Proportionality?

Doctrine of proportionality is applicable in cases where rights are violated by administrative action and the courts scrutinize administrative conduct specifically and go to the courts Issue about the accuracy of the authority’s choices.

The ordinary sense of proportionality is that it should not be more extreme than it should be to achieve desired results. It means can not use canon to fire a sparrow. This philosophy, in other words, seeks to balance means with ends.

Irrationality as a ground and legitimate expectation to challenge of any decision was developed by the Court in Associated Provincial Picture House v. Wednesbury, later came to be known as “Wednesbury test” to determine ‘irrationality’ of an administrative action decision of the Administrative authority shall be deemed to be irrational

  • if it is beyond the authority of law,
  • if it is not based on evidence,
  • if it is based on irrelevant consideration,
  • if it is so absurd in its violation of logic or established moral standards that no reasonable person may make such a decision on the facts and circumstances in question.

In other words, it is so ridiculous that no reasonable person would ever believe that it is beyond the jurisdiction of the government. In practical sense it is the use of the doctrine.

What  Doctrine of Proportionality is in General Sense?

Proportionality shares forum with’ reasonability’ and courts when exercising review power take into account the course of action that would have been fairly pursued. ’Indian courts have long adopted this doctrine but English courts have begun to use this doctrine in administrative law since the passage of the Human Rights Act, 1998.

The theory of proportionality is applicable in cases where human freedoms are violated by administrative action. In such a case, the courts scrutinize administrative conduct specifically and go to the courts Issue about the accuracy of the authority’s choices. Adverse effects on the right would therefore be weighed by the courts and the purpose sought to be accomplished, where the issue of the quantity of penalty levied by the regulatory authority is concerned, the courts would not be subject to strict scrutiny. Courts follow the idea that while the quantity of punishment is beyond the regulatory authority’s control, it is important to prevent arbitrariness.

This concept can be called the’ deference concept’ where the court shows consideration for the regulatory authority’s option except when the option is manifestly excessive.

When evaluating an administrative action on the grounds of proportionality Courts typically consider two issues, namely:

1. Whether the relative merits of specific objectives or interests have been properly weighed and equally balanced?

2. Whether the action under review was, in the circumstances, excessively restrictive or inflicted an unnecessary burden?

Cases Dealing with Doctrine of Proportionality

In Association Of Registration, Plates v. Union of India[1] The Court noted that the judicial review of the administrative action is limited to taking into account the validity of the decision-making process and not the legitimacy of the decision in itself. Mere probability of a particular point of view can not be a basis for intervention. Hence, courts do not intervene unless the decision suffers from flaws in illegality, irrationality, procedural impropriety and proportionality.

In Coimbtore District Central Coop Bank v. Employees Association[2] the Supreme Court held that through the use of the doctrine of proportionality court would not allow administration to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut where a paring knife would suffice. It is thus a concept that courts should analyze administrative objectives and procedures for making a decision or reversing a decision. Yet courts have also sought to balance this theory with the’ flexibility’ theory.

In Council of Civil Services Union v. Minister of Civil Services[3] Lord Diplock summarised the principles of judicial review of administrative action as illegality, procedural impropriety and irrationality. He further said that the doctrine of proportionality as a principle of judicial review may become later available in the same manner as is available in several member States of European Economic Community. Illegality means that no authority should act beyond its powers.

The House of Lords in R. v. Secy, for Home Affairs Brind, ex. p. [4], again reiterated that doctrine of proportionality cannot become a part of administrative law in England unless European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms are incorporated by the Parliament into domestic law.

Lord Bingham in R. v. Ministry of Defence[5], ex parte Smith and said that in the case appellants’ rights as human beings are in issue which are justiciable, the Court can thrust itself into the position of the primary decision maker.

In Union of India v. G. Ganayutham[6], the Supreme Court held that rule of proportionality is fully applicable in constitutional adjudication where the court has to decide on the reasonableness of a restriction on the exercise of fundamental rights. However, its application in the field of administrative law is still in an evolving stage. At the present, the doctrine is not available in administrative law in the sense that the court cannot go into the question of choice made and priority fixed by the administrator.

It is clear that proportionality implies some notion of equilibrium between interests or goals at a general level, and that it represents some sense of an acceptable relationship between means and ends. The related interests need to be established and some weight assigned to them. A judgment could then be made on whether or not the action of the public body was properly proportionate. The most common formulation is for a three type analysis[7].

The court considers:

1. Whether the measure was necessary to achieve the desired objective.

2. Whether the measure was suitable for achieving the desired objective.

3. Whether it nonetheless imposed excessive burdens on the individual. The last part of this inquiry is often termed proportionality stricto sensu.

The Supreme Court also referred contents of the judgments passed by it in the case of P.D. Aggarwal v. State Bank of India[8], where it was said that jurisdiction of the Court to interfere with the quantum of punishment is limited to very exceptional circumstance.

In the opinion of the Court ‘verbal abuse may entail punishment of dismissal from service. The Court applies doctrine of proportionality in a limited manner. In State of U.P. v. Sheo Shanker Lal Srivastava[9], the court held that in the present context, doctrine of proportionality is gaining ground at the cost of Wednesby unreasonableness to make scrutiny of administrative action more exacting and intrusive.

The court held in Suresh Madan v. General Medical Council[10] that a substantial difference existed between a reasoning test cast in terms of greater scrutiny and a proportionality test. The Court agreed that under either rule, many cases would be resolved in the same manner, but stated that, under proportionality, the analysis strength would be greater. Proportionality may allow the investigating court to determine the decision-maker’s balance, not simply whether it was within the context of fair decisions. A proportionality test may also require the court to pay attention to the relative weight given to the relevant interests in a manner that is not usually carried out.

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[1] (2004) 5 SCC. 364

[2] (2007) 4 SCC 669

[3] (1984) 3 All ER 935 (HL)

[4] (1991) 1 All ER 720

[5] (1996) 1 All ER 257

[6] (1997) 7 SCC 463

[7] https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/39836/11/11_chapter%205.pdf

[8] (2006) 8 SCC 776

[9] (2006) 3 SCC 276

[10] (2001) A.C.D. 3

Author Details: Rajat Gautam

The views of the author are personal only. (if any)

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