Relationship Between Constitutional Law and Administrative Law

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Constitutional law and administrative law are interrelated. While administrative law deals with the organizations, powers, functions, and duties of administrative authorities, the constitutional law deals with the general principles relating to these organization and their powers and the relationship of these organs with the individuals.

For relationship between Constitutional law and administrative law, it can be stated that- “It is logically impossible to distinguish administrative from constitutional law and all attempts to do so are artificial.[1] The constitutional law describes the various organs of government at rest, while administrative law describes them in motion.”

In simple terms it can be said that the structure pertaining to legislature and executive are the subject matter of Constitutional Law whereas their functions are dealt with Administrative Law. Hence, Constitutional law and administrative law are closely connected and form a platform for accountability and responsibility to government. There was no difference between the two laws according to English Jurists.[2] However, there are certain areas where they overlap each other and is termed as ‘water shades of administrative law’. But the difference between the two reflects that they are supplementary and complementary to each other.

There has always been a complicated relationship between both the laws. India has a written Constitution and prevalence of concept called Judicial Review thereby, makes it very difficult to separate both the laws. There is no watertight relation between the two and hence, this imposes a burden on scholars and jurists to read between the lines. Constitutional Law is the mother of Administrative Law wherein both are public laws and cannot exist without each other.

The court in Suk Das v. Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh (1986)[3] held that in the relationship between Constitutional Law and Administrative Law, there lies a rational nexus between both the laws as Administrative Law functions to preserve the sanctity of principles, duties, rights, obligations etc. laid down by Constitutional Law. But thereafter, there is pressing need to draw distinction between the both laws to cater the idea of jurisdiction.

The confusion was created because U.K. had an unwritten constitution. Hence, in such ambiguity jurists and scholars are referred to solve the differences and relationship between the two laws. for example, according to Holland, various organs of the government are adumbrated in Constitutional Law whereas the Administrative Law describes them in motion. Hence, the structure of legislature and executive comes under the ambit of constitutional law whereas their functioning comes under administrative law.[4]

For Ivor Jennings, general principles relating to organization, its powers and powers of other organs along with their mutual relationship is the subject matter of Constitutional Law whereas, the premise of Administrative Law deals with organization, its functions and powers of administrative authorities.[5] And Locke had a more clear stance on the same as he pointed out that “an individual can do anything but what is forbidden by law while state may do nothing but what is authorized by law”.[6]

According to Foulks, Administrative Law reflects the “law relating public administration. It is concerned with the legal forms and constitutional status of public authorities; with their powers and duties and with the procedures followed in exercising them; with their legal relationships with one another, with the public and with their employees; which seek, in varied ways, to control their activities.”[7]

The doctrine of water shades helps to establish a line of distinction indicating proper boundaries for application of laws. Dicey and Holland attempted to define this idea as relationship between both the laws. However, many jurists feel that there exists a grey area between the two laws. in India, this exists in shape of constitutional mechanism for ruling administrative authorities’ and to keep an eye on- Article 32, 136, 226, 227, 300 and 311 deals with study of administrative agencies which finds its genesis in constitution, legislative powers delegation and limitation on administrative actions.[8]

The growth of Administrative Law was outcome of growing and changing role of state and its people. In country like India, the expectations of people are very high, because government performs functions of not only facilitator but regulator too. The role is not limited to external aggression but involves internal one also. The distribution of limited resources requires good governance.

There have been technological advancements which has consequences like unemployment, overutilization of resources etc. Furthermore, inefficiency of traditional courts which requires proper functioning for justice, welfare and quick problem solving. Hence, growth of administrative law amidst it is the backbone of modern political philosophy.[9]

This development of Administrative Law is not a recent one. It finds its root even in ancient times. This can be traced in the era of Mauryas and Guptas who have well-structured administrative laws. The notion of Dharma was at its peak and gave importance to principles of natural justice, fairness etc. And this was considered to have a broader ambit as compared to rule of law or due process of law. Every king or monarch followed this without claiming any immunity.

Constitutional Law is the prime source of Administrative Law in India. It is considered as soul of Administrative Law. However, ordinance is also an important source. Under Article 213 and 123, President and Governor has power to promulgate ordinance in emergency situations, but there lies a need to get approval for the same.

In Bank Nationalization Case[10], Supreme Court held that “if the ordinance is constructed on collateral grounds then it can be challenged before the Apex Court”. Further in S.R. Bommai v. Union of India[11], the court clarified that “proclamation of emergency under Article 356 on ground of failure of constitutional machinery is subjected to judicial review”.

The Constitutional Law is the supreme law of the land whereas Administrative Law is subordinate to it. Hence, former is genus and latter is its specie. Constitutional law reflects provisions with respect to all laws and their relations with state and citizen, however, the latter deals with working of state and its various functions to be performed. Therefore, there lies a need for separate discipline to control and prevent the arbitrary action of administrative authorities and give protection to the rights of an individual and thereby public as a whole.

The court in State of Bombay v Bombay Education Society[12] held that Executive action established in India is protected through various ways. Considering example of subordinate legislation which is considered within the meaning of Article 13 which includes bye-laws regulations etc. but if it is ultra vires of Constitution then it can be struck down as held in Chandrakant Krishnarao Pradhan v Jasjit Singh[13]. The court in Rashid Ahmed v Municipal Board, Kairana[14] held that any administrative action with no statutory basis can be held void and therefore, court has power to declare it void if any administrative policy or action violates Constitution.

There is an additional ground on which administrative action can be challenged in special cases where legislative act if comes under purview of administrative order made in itself is unconstitutional as held in State of Mysore v. H. Srinivasmurthy.[15] The court also in Ram Narayan Singh v State of Delhi[16] held that, when the orders are made in cases of quasi-judicial questions it can be challenged to be unconstitutional and legislative provision to be against constitution.

The court in A.R. Antulay v. R.S. Nayak[17] held that any aspect of administrative law does not differentiate between both the laws. the aspects are so broad to include various substantive aspects like public health, education etc. since, the Constitutional Law reflects such ideas for public welfare at large and hence, administrative law deals with them to further help in implementation. Constitutional Law has power to monitor the three branches of the government and set a benchmark to the extent in which policies, rules and regulations can be formulated as substantiated in Sunil Batra II v. Delhi Administration[18].

Therefore, it cannot be denied that Constitutional Law plays a very important role in establishing guidelines, rules, principles and helps in broadening the scope of Administrative Law. The relationship between constitutional law and administrative law, however, sometimes overlaps but very instrumental in many cases. In existence, both are separate laws and have a common area called watershed area in administrative law.

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[1] Keith, Basu, D.D., Administrative Law (6th Edn., 2004), p. 10.

[2] Felix Frankfurter, The Task of Administrative Law, 75 U. PA. L. REV. 614, 616 (1927).

[3] Suk Das v. Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh, (1986) 2 SCC 401.

[4] Williams David, Law and Administrative Discretion, 2 Ind. J. Global Legal Stud. 191, p. 192 (1994).

[5] Wade, H.R. & Forsyth, C.F., Administrative Law (7th Edn., 1995), p. 5.

[6] Abhishek Dubey, The Relationship between Constitutional Law and Administrative Law: An Indian Perspective, Available at:, Last Accessed: 20.04.2020.

[7] Foulks, Administrative Law, 7th edition, pg. 1.

[8] Sathe, S.P., Administrative Law (7th Edn., 2004), p. 7.

[9] Sathe, S.P., Administrative Law (7th Edn., 2004), p. 12.

[10] AIR 564, 1970 SCR (3) 530.

[11] AIR 1994 SC 1918.

[12] State of Bombay v. Bombay Education Society, (1955) 1 SCR 568.

[13] Chandrakant Krishnarao Pradhan v. Jasjit Singh, AIR 1962 SC 204.

[14] Rashid Ahmed v. Municipal Board, Kairana, 1950 SCR 566.

[15] State of Mysore v. H. Srinivasmurthy, (1976) 1 SCC 817, ¶ 18.

[16] Ram Narayan Singh v. State of Delhi, 1953 SCR 652.

[17] A.R. Antulay v. R.S. Nayak, (1988) 2 SCC 602.

[18] Sunil Batra (II) v. Delhi Admn., (1980) 3 SCC 488.

Author Details: Naina Agarwal (Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala)

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