August 2, 2021

Doctrine of Reasonableness in Administrative Law

administrative law

What is Doctrine of Reasonableness in Administrative Law?

Doctrine of proportionality  in the Administrative Law assets that there must be a reasonable nexus between the desired result and the measures taken to reach that goal. Hence, the action taken must not be shockingly disproportionate to the consciousness of the court and the said action can then be challenged by way of judicial review.

Reason is an important element for which homo sapiens always look for as it enables them to take decisions consciously for themselves and helps in assessing the reasonability of others’ decisions.

This state of need of acting with reason and how it helps in the creation and assessment of laws has led to the creation of doctrine of reasonableness in administrative law.

And by common understanding we can say law and reasonability goes hand in hand. In every system, idea of reasonability is the key to appraisal of the legal system.

Doctrine of reasonableness in administrative law can be used as a substantive standard to review the content and material of administrative action and this way provides guidelines to public authority in administrative functions. Any decision by public authorities can be deemed as unreasonable if they do not logically follow all the legally and reasonably relevant dimensions. Conformity to reasonability is what makes people believe and rely on administrative actions and laws.

Thus, we see that doctrine of reasonableness plays a very important role in the field of administrative laws. And the relationship between the both has existed since a very long time but what administration was earlier is not what it is today. The administration has become a multipolar entity functioning cumulatively in the society and this has also changed the applicability of the doctrine of reasonability on it.

So let’s start with analysing reasonableness as a component of “multipolar administrative law”

What is Multipolar Administrative Law?

When we look at the traditional relationship of individuals with the administration, we can say that individuals did not have any role in the administrative functioning but with time this relationship has been altered and now the public does not only function as the receiving end of administrative action but also participates in it in order to exercise their rights. There is a properly established system of accountability and responsibility existing between the administration and public. Hence we can say administration does not function in isolation. It works as a multipolar entity whose aim is to reach towards qualitative and logical results. Hence leading towards the establishment of administrative law as a multipolar law. This multipolar administrative law acts as a thesis which talks about the doctrine of reasonableness which exists at least in theory and is not yet fully developed and needs more efforts in order to become easily adaptable and more effective.

There is a lot to discuss when we talk about the applicability of doctrine of reasonability in administrative law and here we will only discuss the most important part of it.

There are at least three areas in which reasonableness has an important role in Administrative Laws :-

Doctrine of Reasonableness in Administrative Law: Aspects

Doctrine of Reasonableness: As a standard for legitimacy

The first argument which is formed for the reasonability of any law or statute created by the administration is regarding its legitimacy. By legitimacy here we mean the conformity to laws and rules which can be defended with justification and logic. Logic of law is based on reason and any law or rule which is backed by proper reasoning has fewer problems and has greater degree of acceptability and obedience. Hence, legitimacy is claimed through reasonability.

Doctrine of Reasonableness: As a  standard for Statutory Interpretation

The aim behind every statutory interpretation is to arrive at a reasonable reading of the statute. The conformity to reasonableness is achieved by keeping check on two factors. These 2 factors are avoidance of unreasonable or absurd results and contextual reasoning.

It is a matter of common knowledge that the presumption behind the construction of statutes is not to leave them with any absurd interpretation. For example, Edward II king of England, once decreed that every prison break in her territory would be considered a felony and the perpetrator must be hanged. Now here we can assess the problem is that the term prison break has a wide interpretation, maybe someday there is an arson in the prison and people inside are forced to do prison break. The question is whether in this situation also this statute will be interpreted literally. No, in such situations reasonability is looked forward to and on those grounds analysis is done that would a reasonable person ever interpret the statute in such an absurd manner leading towards such a negative consequence.

The second factor discussed above is contextual reasoning which means that how your law is constructed and what it says.

There are two dimensions of law making which we need to understand while dealing with contextual reasoning, namely activist and dynamic law making. Activist law making means when an already emerged or a consensus driven idea is taken up and turned into a law. Dynamic law making involves creation of an idea over which societal consensus is not yet achieved,and such an idea is turned into a law and then propagated. And in both the instances term reasonable plays an essential role. Reasonableness is used as a yardstick by law makers and jurists while creating, functioning and interpreting these laws.

Doctrine of Reasonableness: As a standard for Judicial Review

The most important and interesting use of the doctrine of reasonableness is in context of Judicial Review. As here lies the scope of analysing administrative action and if they are deemed unreasonable they can be annulled.

The area of reasonableness under this context is quite wide and diverse. The legal conception of reasonableness was firmly established in the UK and it appeared for the first time in Rooke’s case, 1598 and was later defined in the Wednesbury decision[1] in 1948 and from there it became more famous and was adopted in the common laws of various countries worldwide.

When we talk about judicial review, we study its impact on administrative discretion. Administrative action on one hand has been given complete freedom but on the other hand its decisions are reviewed on the basis of the merit of the decision.

How much power can the judiciary exercise in the name of reasonableness is a question of immense importance and as an answer to this it has been tried that administrative autonomy and discretion is allowed and should not be taken away unnecessarily while exercising reasonability. And in the decision to Wednesbury Corporation case Lord Greene M.R. opined that the courts would not interfere in the decision of public authorities, provided that :-

  • The authorities have taken account of all the necessary things which it should have taken.
  • The authorities did not take into account the things which it should not have taken.
  • The decision is not unreasonable (something which no reasonable authority will take).

Here after this decision of the court we got the interpretation of the reasonableness in two senses i.e, Narrow sense which considers the above mentioned third guideline that no reasonable authority can take such an action and Broader sense which considers all the three above mentioned guidelines given in that case.

It is considered vital enough to consider and follow the wider interpretation of the reasonableness because it can perform twofold functions in administrative review :-

  • As it creates the scope for the public authority’s competence.
  • If the authority is competent enough it designates the way in which it can exercise its discretion.

The understanding of the doctrine of reasonability is not an easy and concise task because with the development of society changes have taken in national and international laws and which has led to a change in the dimensions of measurement of reasonability. It also changes from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and from situation to situation.

Thus, describing it with precision is difficult. There is a very thin line of difference between reasonability and various other principles such as proportionality, rationality and equality. In one way we can even say that this doctrine when practiced involves all the other principles. But even though imprecise and difficult to understand we can say for sure that it acts as a standard of review for administrative action and plays a great deal of role in the field of administrative laws.

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[1]Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd. v Wednesbury Corporation, 1 KB 223,, EWCA Civ 1

Author Details: Pragya Dixit

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


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