The article 'Doctrine of Prospective Overruling' is a comprehensive study of the historical background, important case laws and scope of the Doctrine of Prospective Overruling.

The article 'Doctrine of Prospective Overruling' is a comprehensive study of the historical background, important case laws and scope of the Doctrine of Prospective Overruling. The author also emphasizes the importance of this doctrine.


In English law, it's widely believed that the judiciary is responsible for setting legal precedents that affect past and future cases, while the legislature creates laws that only impact future judgments. However, some courts have developed the concept of “prospective overruling” as an exception to this idea in order to achieve a fair outcome in cases where following traditional roles would lead to an unjust result.

Prospective Overruling is a departure from the principle of retroactive application of a decision, which was initially introduced in India based on the American Constitution and was first applied in the landmark case of Golaknath v. State of Punjab, 1967 AIR 1643. The Supreme Court established various principles for employing this doctrine in this landmark case, which was subsequently adhered to as a precedent. This doctrine has since been utilized in numerous cases by the Supreme Court.

Historical Background

The concept of prospective overruling originated in American law. However, before its implementation, the American legal system adhered to the Blackstonian theory, which held that courts lacked the authority to establish new laws and could only interpret and clarify existing laws. Despite this view, some American legal scholars opposed the Blackstonian theory, leading to the adoption of the doctrine of prospective overruling.

English legal scholars such as Bentham and Austin criticized the Blackstonian theory adopted in England. According to Austin, the belief that laws are not created by the courts but instead exist magically is purely fictional. He argued that judges have always been and will continue to be the creators of laws within the courts.

Cardozo J., the originator of Prospective Overruling, introduced this doctrine in the case of Great Northern Railway v. Sunburst Oil and Refining Co. (287 U.S. 358), where he declined to apply the ruling retroactively. The main goal of the Prospective Overruling doctrine is to overturn a precedent without affecting past judgments. According to him, if this principle is not implemented, it would undermine the dynamic nature of the law and go against the concept of judicial activism. Cardozo J. believed that the law should evolve and adapt to changes in society and should not remain static. If people are bound by an outdated law in a changed society, it could lead to serious injustice. The citizens who live under the laws of the land should be granted laws that address current needs. Therefore, the doctrine of Prospective Overruling works as a crucial tool for the judiciary to provide just and timely solutions for its citizens.

History of Doctrine of Prospective Overruling in India

In India, the Supreme Court adopted the doctrine of prospective overruling for the first time in I.C. Golaknath v. State of Punjab, (1967 AIR 1643). This was introduced by Chief Justice Subba Rao, who drew inspiration from American jurists such as Canfield, Freeman, Wigmore and Cardozo, who viewed it as a valuable judicial tool. Chief Justice Subba Rao believed that the doctrine was well-suited to modern, fast-paced societies and provided a practical solution to the question of whether the court finds or makes law. He argued that the Indian Constitution did not expressly prohibit the use of the doctrine of prospective overruling and that Articles 32, 141, and 142 empowered the Supreme Court to develop legal doctrine to serve justice.

Also, in the case of Sarwan Kumar v. Madan Lal Aggarwal (Appeal (Civil) 1058 of 2003), the court elaborated on this doctrine:

“Under the doctrine of prospective overruling the law declared by the Court applies to the cases arising in future only and its applicability to the cases which have attained finality is saved because the repeal would otherwise work hardship to those who had trusted to its existence.”

Meaning of Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling, which was first introduced in the American judicial system, involves the act of overturning a legal precedent by explicitly stating that it will no longer be considered a binding law, with the changes applying only to future cases. The term overruling signifies the act of setting aside a legal precedent, while prospective means that the changes will take effect in the future.

When the principles of prospective overruling are applied, a prior decision is interpreted to eliminate its binding effect on both the parties of the original case and any subsequent cases based on that ruling. At the same time, the law has changed to apply only to future cases rather than to those that have already been decided.

Important Case Laws on Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

I.C Golaknath v. State of Punjab, (1967 AIR 1643)

Facts of the Case

The petitioner who submitted the petition, as well as their relatives, possessed more than 500 acres of land in Jalandhar, Punjab. Following the introduction of the Punjab Security of Land Tenures Act in 1953, the government notified them that they could only retain 30 acres of land each and had to relinquish the remainder of their land. This excess land would be classified as surplus. The legality of the law was questioned because it was believed to violate Article 19(1) (f), Article 14, and Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.


Does the Parliament possess the authority to make laws and modify the fundamental rights granted to Indian citizens under the Constitution?


The Court introduced certain provisions to limit the application of a doctrine that had previously been developed in a different legal system. This was the Court's first application of the doctrine, and therefore, it was deemed necessary to clarify its use within the Indian system. The Court established three important guidelines; first, the doctrine of prospective overruling can only be applied in cases related to the Indian Constitution, Second, the highest court in the country, the Supreme Court, has the authority to apply this doctrine, as it is the only court with the constitutional jurisdiction to declare laws binding on all courts in India, and the third, the Supreme Court has discretion in deciding the extent to which the doctrine of prospective overruling can be used to supersede its earlier decisions, based on the circumstances of the case and the principles of justice.

Indra Sawhney v. Union Of India, (1992 (Suppl) 3, SCC 217)

Facts of the Case

In 1992, Indra Sawhney, a journalist, was moved by the sight of young children, school and college students rallying at Delhi Jhandewalan Extension. This spurred her to take action by filing a lawsuit against the government's implementation within two days. The case started with a two-judge bench and then progressed, and ultimately a nine-judge bench arrived at a decision with a majority vote of 6 to 3.


  • Whether caste is a distinct class on its own, and whether economic criteria may be used to classify people?
  • Whether Article 16(4) is a stand-alone exception to Article 16(1) and covers all reserve rights.
  • Is it permissible to classify ‘Backward Classes' into Backward Classes and Most Backward Classes under Article 16(4), or to classify them among themselves based on economic or other considerations?


In this case, it was determined that the ruling would take effect five years after the date of the decision. This means that the judgment will not be impacted by this decision, and the extension of the time period was appropriately respected and implemented using the Prospective Overruling principle.

While the Supreme Court has the authority to use this doctrine, it's also essential to extend this power to High Courts to ensure the safeguarding of rights and the preservation of justice are not compromised.

Union of India v. Mohammad Ramzan Khan, (1991 AIR 471)

Facts of the Case

The 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act revised Article 311 of the Constitution, which meant that individuals who were found to be at fault no longer had the right to access their disciplinary inquiry report. This amendment allowed a person to be fired without providing any reason for their dismissal. However, the amendment was challenged on the basis that it violated Article 14 and the principles of natural justice.

Issue in the Case

Whether the amendment of Article 311 by the 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act violates Article 14 and the principles of natural justice?


According to the principles of natural justice, every individual has the right to understand the grounds for suspension or termination from a given position. Issuing an order without providing a reason is a breach of these principles. As a result, the amendment is unconstitutional, and any orders issued under it will be considered null and void. New proceedings must be initiated appropriately. Using the principle of prospective overruling, the court decided that, from the date of the ruling, no order can be issued without specifying the reasons for the punishment.

Harsha Dhingra v. State of Haryana (Appeal Civil 6840 of 2001, W.P. (Civil) 256 of 1998)

Facts of the Case

In the current case, Section 30 of the Haryana Development Authority Act, 1988 was contested. This section granted unrestricted authority to the Chief Minister of Haryana to allocate plots as he saw fit, without any oversight from the judiciary. The law was challenged on the basis that it was arbitrary and infringed upon Article 14 of the Constitution.


Whether the section 30 of the Haryana Development Authority act of 1988 violate Article 14 of the Constitution or not?


It is important to understand that the doctrine of prospective overruling validates all actions or transactions that occurred before a law was declared unconstitutional for the benefit of the public. Lower courts are obligated to apply the superior courts' decision regarding the future application of the law in any future cases they handle. Prospective overruling is not only a constitutional policy but also an aspect of stare decisis, meaning the legal principle of following precedent, and not a form of judicial legislation.

Waman Rao v. Union of India, [(1981) 2 SCC 362]

Facts of the Case

The Maharashtra Agricultural Lands (Ceiling on Holdings) Act, 1961 established specific limits on the amount of agricultural land that individuals in Maharashtra could own. The Act was classified under the IX Schedule of the Constitution. More than 2000 petitions were submitted in the Bombay High Court disputing the Act's legality. The High Court ruled that the Act's provisions could not be challenged on the basis that it was included in the IX Schedule of the Constitution. Consequently, the case was taken to the Supreme Court.


Whether this Maharashtra Agricultural Lands (Ceiling on Holdings) Act, 1961 valid or not?


The Court can still use the doctrine of prospective overruling even if an Act is added to the IX schedule of the constitution. This means that even if the Act were found unconstitutional, any transactions that occurred under it would still be considered valid in the future.

Orissa Cement Limited v. State of Orissa, [(1991) AIR 1617]

Facts of the Case

The Applicant-Assessee has taken legal action by appealing to the Supreme Court, arguing that the imposition of a 'cess' by the States of Bihar, Orissa, and Madhya Pradesh, which is calculated based on the royalties obtained from mining lands, is unconstitutional as it exceeds the legislative competence of the State legislatures. The Applicant-Assessee has also requested a refund of the cess/royalties that were collected. The laws being challenged are the Orissa Cess Act 1962 and its accompanying regulations, the Bengal Cess Act 1880, the Madhya Pradesh Upkar Adhiniyam 1981, the Madhya Pradesh Karadhan Adhiniyam 1982, and the Madhya Pradesh Mineral Areas Development Cess Rules, 1982.

Issues Involved in the Case

Whether this cess imposed by the State government is constitutionally valid or not?


The principle of prospective overruling states that court decisions should only apply to future cases, not past ones. In this case, since the law has been deemed unconstitutional, only the cess or royalties that would have been collected after this ruling are eligible for a refund. Any cess or royalties that were collected by the state before the law was declared unconstitutional cannot be refunded.

Scope of Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

Justice Subba Rao had established some rules or instructions on how to apply this doctrine. This doctrine allows the judiciary to intervene in the legislative process, which may not be helpful in encouraging parties to pursue appeals, adding to the burden of litigation. Any statements made about future cases would be considered incidental. Making a significant change like this is not desirable and could result in the easy overturning of past decisions.

The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling is only relevant to cases related to the Constitution, and only the Supreme Court can use it because of its broad authority under Article 141, which requires all other courts in India to follow its rulings. The court has the power to determine if a decision should have a retroactive effect or not based on what is fair and just in the case at hand. This means that the court can choose to modify its previous judgment to apply only to a future judgment.  


In simple terms, the principle of prospective overruling means that a Court's decision will only apply to future cases and not impact any transactions that have already taken place before the ruling. This concept is a crucial aspect of India's legal system, as it ensures that the public's interest remains protected by avoiding the cancellation of past transactions under laws that have been deemed unconstitutional. The doctrine is subject to certain conditions: it can only be used in cases related to the interpretation of the Constitution, only the Supreme Court has the authority to apply it, and the Court may adjust the extent of its application based on the justice of the case at hand.

Sometimes, it becomes necessary to allow the High Courts to use this Doctrine in order to protect rights and ensure justice is served. A Comprehensive Understanding of all aspects of this Doctrine can lead to positive socio-economic effects by reducing confusion and chaos that may arise from the retroactive application of laws. J. Subba Rao's introduction of this Doctrine has been a remarkable move, as it provides clarity to the rule of overruling and has had significant implications for the legal landscape in India.


[1] All about Doctrine of Prospective Overruling, Available Here

[2] The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling, Available Here

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Tanmay Mehra

Tanmay Mehra

Tanmay Mehra is a law graduate with a Bachelor's in Business Administration and Law (B.B.A.LL.B.) from National Law University Odisha, Cuttack. Currently, she is aspiring to crack the Judicial Service examination.

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