The writ of quo warranto – literally translating to “by what warrant (or authority)?”—is a writ that dates back to mediaeval England. While largely obsolete in that form, it retains its significance in modern-day India, even if it is issued lesser than other writs.
This article discusses the writ of quo warranto by tracing its history, analysing its scope, and explicating its evolution into its current form. It also analyses two notable judgements surrounding the writ, one of which is a binding precedent and a definer of when the writ is to be issued in India.
The writ of quo warranto—Mediaeval Latin for “by what warrant?” or “by what authority?”—is a prerogative writ issued to a person to show what authority they have to exercise a particular power. Typically, in modern usage, it is used to challenge a person’s right to hold a public or corporate office.
This writ is generally used to verify the validity of the elections of government officials like mayors, advocates and attorneys general, members of the legislative councils (which are generally nominated), etc.
The power to issue this writ—as with the writs of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, and certiorari in India—is vested in the Supreme Court by virtue of Article 32 and the various High Courts under Article 226 of the Constitution of India.
II. History, Scope and Evolution
Quo warranto originally developed as a method for the king to determine the right of any person who “claims or usurps any office.” This remedy was civil, and if the king won in court, the usurper would be evicted from office or there would be a seizure by the crown. There was no fine or threat of imprisonment, however.
This writ, however, fell into desuetude, and was replaced with an “information in the nature of quo warranto.” This carried the threat of criminal prosecution, and, therefore, jail time.
The scope of the writ of quo warranto is relatively narrow. The writ of quo warranto, broadly speaking, can be issued against any person who holds an ‘independent substantive public office or franchise or liberty’. This is in line with mediaeval England’s interpretation of the writ till it was shelved in favour of the “information in the nature of quo warranto.”
The writ of quo warranto can also be wielded against corporations—not just government officials—who violate franchise.
As affirmed by the Delhi High Court, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Volume II, describes it as “a legal proceeding that is brought by the state, sovereign, or public officer, has a purpose similar to that of the ancient writ of quo warranto, is usually criminal in form and sometimes authorizes the imposition of a fine but is essentially civil in nature and seeks to correct often at the relation or on the complaint of a private person a usurpation, misuser, or nonuser of a public office or corporate or public franchise, and may result in judgments of ouster against individuals and of ouster and seizure against corporations.”
In India, notably, along with the writ of habeas corpus, the rule of locus standi for the writ of quo warranto has been relaxed as well. Therefore, concerned citizens can file for a writ of quo warranto without being directly aggrieved.
III. Landmark Judgements
1. University of Mysore v. C D Govinda Rao
C D Govinda Rao had filed a writ of quo warranto under Article 226 of the Constitution in the Mysore High Court seeking to verify under what authority Anaiah Gowda was holding the post of Research Reader in a college in Bangalore.
The High Court ruled in favour of the University of Mysore, but the order was set aside by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court definitively set precedent for the writ of quo warranto in India, writing:
Broadly stated, the quo warranto proceeding affords a judicial remedy by which any person, who holds an independent substantive public office or franchise or liberty, is called upon to show by what right he holds the said office, franchise or liberty, so that his title to it may be duly determined, and in case the finding is that the holder of the office has no title, he would be ousted from that office by judicial order.
In other words, the procedure of quo warranto gives the judiciary a weapon to control the Executive from making appointments to public office against law and to protect a citizen from being deprived of public office to which he has a right.
These proceedings also tend to protect the public from usurpers of public office, who might be allowed to continue either with the connivance of the Executive or by reason of its apathy. It will, thus, be seen that before a person can effectively claim a writ of quo warranto, he has to satisfy the Court that the office in question is a public office and is held by a usurper without legal authority, and that inevitably would lead to the enquiry as to whether the appointment of the alleged usurper has been made in accordance with law or not. (emphasis mine)
Thus, the Court held that the following ingredients are necessary for a successful writ of quo warranto:
- The office in question should be an independent substantive public office;
- It should be held by a person without legal authority
2. Dr Y.S. Rajasekara Reddy v. Nara Chandra Babu Naidu
In this case, office-bearers of the opposition Congress party sought the removal of the chief minister on grounds on non-performance of constitutional duties. The Andhra High Court, in this case, held that non-performance of constitutional duties did not constitute sufficient grounds to evict a chief minister from office:
A person duly elected cannot be ousted in quo warranto from his office through the process of Court… A mere misdemeanour would not ipso facto result in the forfeiture from acting in office. The actions of the public officer are subject to judicial review, which is the accepted basic feature of the Constitution. If he fails to perform his Constitutional duty or refuses to perform his duty, the Court will be within its right to issue appropriate writ or mandamus or injunction forcing the person to discharge his Constitutional duty.
The Courts would not disturb the affairs of the institution especially when all the elected representatives participated in Legislation and having failed on the Floor of the House or before the Court of the people i.e., the electors, cannot use the Courts as a lever to achieve their political ends.
It is again a well-recognised principle that where one neglects to perform a duty he is enjoined to perform by law, the grievance can be remedied by issuance of appropriate writ and cannot be remedied by quo warranto.
Thus, the Andhra High Court in a judgement authored by M.S. Lieberhan—of Lieberhan Commission fame—held that it other writs could be used to enforce a constitutional duty, but the writ of quo warranto was to be reserved for specific circumstances.
The writ of quo warranto has a very specific target but its rules of locus standi are considerably relaxed compared to other writs. As we have discussed above, the writ of quo warranto can only be issued against an office that is independent, public, and substantive. However, anyone can pray for that writ.
The writ of quo warranto, moreover, “gives the judiciary a weapon to control the Executive from making appointments to public office against law and protect[s] a citizen from being deprived of public office to which he has a right.”
 INDIAN CONST. art 32
 INDIAN CONST. art 226
 AIR 1975 Delhi 66 (emphasis mine).
 1965 AIR 49.
 1999 (6) ALD 623
 Ibid at note 8.