August 3, 2021

Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation in Administrative Law

administrative law


Significant progress has been seen in the country since the 19th century. The scope of administrative and state functions has become so wide and pervasive that it penetrates into the everyday life of an average citizen. These duties and obligations are diverse to the extent that it becomes difficult to keep track or even classify them[1]. The citizens of the nation vest this power to the Government, thereby making it the duty of said government of exercise such power after careful scrutiny. Multiple principles and doctrines have evolved relating to discharge of proper administrative functions. One such doctrine would be that of Legitimate Expectation.

Originally formulated by lord Denning in 1969, legitimate expectation has been defined as the expectation which shall be protected (must be “legitimate”) but may not amount to a right in the conventional sense[2]. Administrative authorities come out with certain policies, statutes and actions that create a legal (Legitimate) expectation, which when changed or altered deprives the individual (or group of individuals) of said expectation and liberty. It means to say that where a person has no legally enforceable right or interest, he might have some legitimate expectation, which would be unfair to deprive him without hearing what he has to say or not fulfilling said expectation[3].

Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation was created to hold governmental action accountable. It is quite difficult to claim reliefs from governmental policies and statutes; hence, this doctrine was intended to give relief to people from governmental actions even when they cannot claim a right under strict understanding of law. It provides a central space between ‘right’ and ‘no right’, wherein a pubic authority can be made accountable on grounds of an expectation, which is, legitimate. It helps maintain and honour policy statements without unfair discrimination to persons similarly situated.

Types of Legitimate Expectation

Legitimate Expectations are of two types-

1. Procedural- wherein a hearing or other appropriate procedure will be afforded before a decision is made. It is pertinent to note that a procedure, which has been followed so far, will be continued.

2. Substantive- That the benefit of treatment on question will be continued.

There are certain factors that have to be taken into consideration while determining the extent of legitimate Expectation. The Expectation must be a reasonable one. The nature of representation must be a clear and an unambiguous promise, which is consistent over a long period of time. However, if the party knows that the assurance could be obtained in an otherway, then the same would not be considered as a legitimate expectation. It is also pertinent to show detrimental reliance in all these cases.

The doctrine of legitimate expectation was introduced into English Law in 1970’s through the Schmidt case[4]; however, it is pertinent to note that the doctrine was followed well before it was established. It had developed over time and the test of just and reasonable exercise of power was taken. The fact that decision-maker proposes to move away from its own policy creates a burden of justification as per the relevant standards or rationality and relevance. This means that an obligation is created to justify said departure from policy. The courts duty in such cases would not be to impede the executive authority but rather reconcile its continuing need to initiate or respond to the change with regard to the legitimate expectations relied on by the citizens.

A similar stance was recognized in India as well. The doctrine was developed in the Indian Judicial system after the Schmidt case; however, its principles had been followed since time. It found its way into the constitution particularly through Article 14. The importation of this doctrine is recent and its first reference was made in the State of Kerala Vs K.G. Madhavan Pillai[5] case. The court in the case held that the stay on the sanction order to open new schools and upgrade new ones violated the legitimate expectation created to the respondents thereby violating the principles of natural justice thereby vitiating said administrative order. It is also pertinent to note that where an individual has a legitimate expectation to be treated in a certain way, it’s the administrative authorities duty to ensure that the he is given a fair hearing before denying such expectation[6]. This doctrine of fair hearing may arise through a promise or an established practice[7].

The Navjyoti Co-operative Group Housing Society Vs UOI[8] took a similar decision, wherein the Apex Court held that changing the criteria requirement for allotment of land to co-operative societies was violating them of their legitimate expectation, their benefit ascertained to them hence adversely affecting them, and are therefore entitled to a fair hearing.

The case of Punjab Communications Vs UOI and Ors[9], states when a legitimate expectation may arise-

  • If there is an express promise held out or representation made by a public authority, or
  • The existence of past practice which the claimant can reasonably expect to continue, and
  • Wherein the promise or representation is clear and unambiguous
  • Wherein the representation in question can be made either to an individual or to a class or person.

The doctrine of legitimate expectation is analogous to the principles of natural justice. It ensures fairness, reliance and trust in the government and equality in the administrative and legal system. The doctrine ensures that government authorities are held responsible for their action, which ensures regulation and control of power and authority. However, there are many who argue against the same. They state that policy-making exercise should not be unduly fettered.

Liberty to make policy is inherently a constitutional duty of the government. This schema is derived from the authorities, and it is intended to represent a step towards a determinate set of rules that is designed to strike a balance between the general public interest and interests of individuals led by public authorities believing that they would act in a particular way that would benefit them.

While this does make a valid claim, it is creates a leeway for government authorities to abuse authority and avoid liability for the same. This doctrine in a way creates a safety net against misuse of power by government authority making it an important mechanism to smoothly run the country.

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[1] Jain, M.P., Changing Face of Administrative Law in India and Abroad; (1982) at 102

[2] Basu, D.D., Human Rights in Constitutional Law, (2003) at 457

[3] Schmidt vs Secretary of State (1969) 1 ALL ER 904 (909), C.A.

[4] Ibid.

[5] AIR 1989 SC 49

[6] Ridge vs Baldwin, (1963) 2 ALL ER 66: (194) AL 140

[7] State of H.P. vs Kailash Mahajan, 1997 Supp (2) SCC 351

[8] (1991) 4 SCC 471

[9] (1999) 4 SCC 727

Author Details: Janavi Venkatesh

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


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