Writ of Mandamus: History, Scope and Evolution, and Landmark Judgements

By | January 21, 2021
Writ of Mandamus

Writ of Mandamus | Overview

The writ of mandamus can be employed to either direct a body to do something or to refrain from doing something. Mandamus is only issued by high and apex courts; in India, those are the various state high courts and the supreme court. They have original jurisdiction vis-à-vis issuing writs. As per judicial precedent, it cannot be anticipatory in nature.

This article covers the history of mandamus, its scope and how it evolved, and landmark judgements involving it.

Introduction

Mandamus, a Latin term literally translating to “we command,” is a writ issued by a court to a government official, inferior court, or public authority to perform a duty.

As with all writs, a writ of mandamus can only be issued by the Supreme Court and the various high courts—vested with them under Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution of India respectively.

Mandamus can serve both as a positive and negative order. That is, it can be used either to compel someone to do something or to not do something.

Scope and Evolution

Originally, mandamus was an order issued by the English Crown to an official to perform a specific task within the duty of his office. Gradually, this function was transferred from the Crown to the courts.[1]

In India, the official or administrative body against whom the writ of mandamus is sought must have a statutory public duty to perform the command issued. Moreover, the petitioner must have a right to demand enforcement of the duty, although exceptions to this rule have been evolved in Indian jurisprudence.

In S.P. Gupta v. President of India,[2] Chief Justice P.N. Bhagwati delineated some of these exceptions. These exceptions will be discussed at greater length in the next section on landmark judgements.

There are certain restrictions on whom a court can issue a writ of mandamus to. Under Article 361, a writ of mandamus cannot be issued against the president and the governors of the states. Generally, it can also not be issued against a private person or body.

A writ of mandamus also cannot be issued against a sitting Chief Justice of India. Nor can it be issued against a legislative institution—parliament or the state legislative assemblies—or its members.

Landmark Judgements

  1. P. Gupta v. President of India, 1980

In this case, Chief Justice Bhagwati, writing for the majority, advanced a few exceptions to the otherwise strict rules of who can pray for a writ of mandamus. Two of them pertain to the standing of ratepayers to local authorities to challenge illegal actions and misuse of funds by said authorities:

In the first place, a ratepayer of a local authority is accorded standing to challenge an illegal action of the local authority. Thus, a ratepayer can question the action of the municipality in granting a cinema licence to a person, vide: K.R. Shenoy v. Udipi Municipality. Similarly, the right of a ratepayer to challenge the misuse of funds by a municipality has also been recognised by the Courts vide: Varadarajan v. Salem Municipality.

Additionally, the court also held that in cases of marginalised citizens, another person can file a petition for them:

But it must now be regarded as well-settled law where a person who has suffered a legal wrong or a legal injury or whose legal right or legally protected interest is violated, is unable to approach the Court on account of some disability or it is not practicable for him to move the Court for some other sufficient reasons, such as his socially or economically disadvantaged position, some other person can invoke the assistance of the Court for the purpose of providing judicial redress to the person wronged or injured so that the legal wrong or injury caused to such person does not go un-redressed and justice is done to him. (emphasis supplied)

This judgement is therefore notable for relaxing the standing rule for filing a prayer for a writ of mandamus.

  1. Vemula Prabhakar v. Land Acquisition Officer, 2001[3]

In this case, a three-judge bench of the Andhra High Court held that in the event that a remedy is available under the Code of Civil Procedure, a court cannot entertain a writ of mandamus:

In this view of the matter, we are of the opinion that it cannot be said that the remedy provided for under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 is not adequate remedy so as to enable this Court to entertain the writ petition.

While not radical, the case is certainly an important judgement because of its restriction on issuing writs of mandamus, particularly when alternative remedies in the Civil Procedure Code are available.

  1. K. Roy v. Union of India, 1981[4]

Petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the National Security Act which was promulgated by parliament in 1980. One of those petitions asked the Court to issue a writ of mandamus to the government to operationalise Section 3 of the Act.

The Court declined to issue a writ of mandamus, saying:

[W]e find ourselves unable to intervene in a matter of this nature by issuing a mandamus to the Central Government obligating it to bring the provisions of section 3 into force. The Parliament having left to the unfettered judgment of the Central Government the question as regards the time for bringing the provisions of the 44th Amendment into force, it is not for the Court to compel the Government to do that which, according to the mandate of the Parliament, lies in its discretion to do when it considers it opportune to do it. (emphasis supplied)

This constituted an important check on the court’s power to issue a writ of mandamus. If parliament cedes space to the executive to perform an action as they please, it is not in the power of the court to issue a directive compelling the executive to perform otherwise.

Conclusion

The writ of mandamus is an extraordinary writ which must be used carefully by the courts. Notably, its rules are much more restrictive than those of habeas corpus which the Supreme Court drastically expanded. This is because mandamus is only intended for use where alternative remedies are not available.

Nonetheless, mandamus has been an important writ for citizens to seek justice within a legal framework.


[1] “Mandamus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Available here.

[2] S.P. Gupta v. President of India, AIR 1982 SC 149.

[3] Vemula Prabhakar v. Land Acquisition Officer, 2002 (1) ALD 200.

[4] A.K. Roy v. Union of India, 1982 AIR 71.


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