DECLARATORY DECREE UNDER SPECIFIC RELIEF ACT, 1963

INTRODUCTION

The Specific Relief Act of 1963 (hereinafter referred to as SRA, 1963) aims to provide remedies to the injured party and cover a wide range of available remedies. Declaratory decrees are one of the ways of bringing relief to someone who is being denied rights to which she/he is entitled to. A declaration is an authoritative pronouncement made by courts for a person’s status or right to property.[1] This article attempts to elaborate on this topic and discuss some important cases related to it.

DECLARATIONS IN SPECIFIC RELIEF ACT, 1963

Section 34 reads “Any person entitled to any legal character, or to any right as to any property, may institute a suit against any person denying, or interested to deny, his title to such character or right, and the court may in its discretion make therein a declaration that he is so entitled, and the plaintiff need not in such suit ask for any further relief: Provided that no court shall make any such declaration where the plaintiff, being able to seek further relief than a mere declaration of title, omits to do so.” Let us understand a few important phrases from this verbatim. Here, “legal character” is reflective of the status of a person in the legal context and its recognition by law. It can include issues related to official positions, ranks, caste, nationality etc. Holland and Salmond were of the belief that every right which is recognized and protected by the law of the state, creating an obligation is a legal right. For filing a declaration suit, the plaintiff must have a certain legal character or right to the property in question. It is also important for the right to property to exist on the day of the suit. The plaint asking for a declaration must include details of the right/title being claimed, the circumstances of its denial and the prayer.

The phrase “interested to deny” is not equivalent to an imaginary apprehension. There should be a substantial cause behind the filing of the suit. Just because there is no “further relief” that the plaintiff can avail, the court cannot dismiss the suit. Yet, a declaration cannot be granted where obtaining subsequent further relief is a possibility but the plaintiff still omits to do so and instead asks for a mere declaration. For instance, Consequential reliefs resulting immediately from successful declaration suits cannot be denied. For instance, a party can ask for a declaration of title to land and consequent perpetual and mandatory injunctions for the removal of encroachments on the land.[2] To enhance the understanding of this topic, some cases are discussed below:

Paternity case– N. Tiwari v R. Shekhar:[3]  ‘A’, the plaintiff had filed a case for the declaration of paternity and an injunction, perpetual in nature, to prevent any denial of it in the future against his putative father ‘B’. The court had mandated a DNA test for the father. The collection of samples was ordered to be done at the residence of B and to keep the results sealed so as to maintain confidentiality. A and his mother were allowed to witness the sample collection to ensure that there was no tampering.

Declaration for spousal recognition– Narsamma v Madras Regiment: [4] A second wife filed a suit for being recognized as the legal wife of her husband. She claimed that her wedding happened after the Panchayat dissolved the first marriage of her husband. However, she failed to prove the customary rituals of her community through which she vouched for the validity of her marriage. Further, it was also found that the first wife was not unheard of for seven years and the Panchayat dissolved the marriage in her absence. The court denied granting the declaration and held the second marriage to be void.

Defamation case– Jayalalitha v Nakheerangopal: [5] The plaintiff had, in their prayer, asked for a declaration that the defendants made defamatory comments in their newspaper and included a request for consequent relief of perpetual injunction on publishing such defamatory content. The defendants wanted the case to be dismissed but the court was of the view that reasons cited by them only amounted to grounds of defence and not the rejection of a declaratory suit. The suit was found to be maintainable. It was also held that section 34 of SRA,1963 is only illustrative, not exhaustive and so it will not prevent the court from granting a declaration that is civil in nature.

Joint right case– Thukkaram v Vardharajan: [6] A husband and his wife shared a common pathway which the wife transferred solely. The husband (plaintiff in this case) also had an equal right on the pathway and the wife’s act of preventing the plaintiff from its usage was a violation of his right. The Madras High Court, reversing the earlier judgments, held the husband to be entitled to a declaration of the common right as well as the consequent relief of perpetual injunction.

It must be remembered that despite meeting essential criteria, whether or not a declaration is to be granted is left to the courts’ discretion. For example, a student had brought a case against his university demanding a declaration that he had successfully passed his examinations and resultantly, be promoted to the next class. The court refused to grant his prayers after due consideration of the facts.[7] Also, if the court finds the suit to be frivolous, it can be dismissed. There are some kinds of declaration suits that are not allowed in Indian Courts. Suits pleading for negative declarations are not maintainable. Therefore, if someone pleads for a declaration that announces that he/she did not infringe upon the rights of another, the suit will not be allowed. Declarations that can affect the free flow of capital cannot be made. Obtaining a declaration that says that a will is invalid cannot be made if the testator is alive. This is because revocation or rectification of the will is possible and the process of property transfer will not happen during the person’s lifetime. Declarations announcing the plaintiffs as purchasers for unregistered sale deeds are not possible. Suits for non-existent rights and speculatory successions are unfeasible.[8]  

There is another important question that remains to be answered. Is a declaratory decree a right in rem that can be used against anyone after the plaintiff receives it? A declaration granted against a person is not a right in rem.[9] Section 35 of SRA, 1963 throws light on this matter. It reads “A declaration made under this Chapter is binding only on the parties to the suit, persons claiming through them respectively, and, where any of the parties are trustees, on the persons for whom, if in existence at the date of the declaration, such parties would be trustees.” This essentially clarifies on whom the consequences of a declaration will have an effect. A declaration obtained by a suit is valid in the context of both the parties to the suit and their trustees but it is not applicable to any third party. For instance, A filed a suit for claiming his right to property against B. After hearing both sides, the court granted the declaration prayed for by A. Later, C who was neither a party to the suit nor a trustee for any party, claims to be the rightful owner of the said property. A cannot use the declaration obtained against B to prevent C from bringing a suit against him. The previous declaration cannot act as a res judicata factor for this new suit.

CONCLUSION

Declaratory decrees provide a mechanism enabling people to establish their legal characters and rights. The courts have discretionary power to make declarations in favour of the parties asking for it and against the party who is proved to have been wrongfully denying the right. A suit for a declaration is dismissed if the court believes that the plaintiff has other courses of action but refrains from utilizing them. The topic of declaratory decree is covered mainly under section 34 of SRA 1963. On the other hand, section 35 SRA, 1963 gives additional clarity by removing ambiguity regarding the application and effect of the declarations granted. 

Author(s) Name: Kumari Kanishka (Symbiosis Law School, Noida)

References:

[1] BM GANDHI, EQUITY, TRUSTS AND SPECIFIC RELIEF (4th ed. 2007)

[2] Phanidhar Kalita v. Saraswati Devi (2015) 5 SCC 661.

[3] Narayan Dutt Tiwari v. Rohit Shekhar 2012 12 SCC 554.

[4] Pilla Appala Narsamma v. Madras Regiment, AIR 2011 AP 183.

[5] J Jayalalithaa v. Nakheerangopal (2009) 1 CTC 798.

[6] Thukkaram v. Shanthi Vardharajan, AIR 2011 Mad 57.

[7] Ram Ugrah Singh v. Benares Hindu University ILR (1925) 47 All 434.

[8] AVTAR SINGH, CONTRACT AND SPECIFIC RELIEF 938-39 (12th ed. 2017).

[9] Munyaraj v. Venkatapati, 1955 Hyd 172.