What Are Suo Moto Cases?

The Latin maxim suo moto connotes ‘on its own motion’. Ideally, a complainant, petitioner or an aggrieved person files a suit before the court of law in order to seek justice; however, the Indian Judiciary, particularly Supreme Court and the High Courts; are vested with an inherent power to take up suits on their own, without any party filing it in the first place, thereby promoting suo moto cognizanceof the judiciary. Such initiating of the matter by the judges can be influenced through third parties, like media, letter petitions, reports and so forth.

The term owes its origin to the ‘epistolary jurisdiction’ wherein those who were economically and socially deprived, or could not afford the expenses of legal proceedings, could send petitions in the form of letters as requests to the judges to take up their cases in the interest of the aggrieved party. This boosted judicial activism in the late seventies[1]. Nevertheless in India, the suo moto cognizance of cases was first initiated in the 1990’s with the rise of air pollution in Delhi[2]. However, the first epistolary petition by Mr. Sunil Batra led to the Apex court laying down guidelines for administration of prison justice[3].

Such cases can hold accountable any government or private institutions or persons.

  • Invocation of suo moto cognizance

The exercise of the said inherent power by the courts includes various factors which aim to construct an idealistic society. This consists of speedy justice to the citizens particularly those who are socially and economically deprived, plus it encourages judicial activism in the interest of the public thereby promoting social welfare. It is imperative to note that suo moto cognizance can be invoked in multiple instances.

It is mostly exercised in contempt cases, which is given legal assistance through Article 129 Article 215[4] of the Indian Constitution, for the Apex Court and High Courts respectively[5]. Both these provisions recognize the courts as a court of record, having the power to reprimand in cases of contempt. The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘contempt’ as disobedience or disrespect towards a court’s orders or its rules[6].

The second and most important instance when the same can be used by the courts is in case of violation of the fundamental rights of a person. Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution[7] give the power of writ jurisdiction to the Supreme Court and the High Court respectively, to deal with the infringed fundamental rights of persons by granting them remedy. Concomitantly, such writ can also be invoked by way of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), when the aggrieved parties are more than a single person, rather a community. The suo moto power can be exercised by the courts by taking up such PILs filed before them as a matter in their own hands and hold accountable the impugned parties.

Apart from the same, as per Article 131 of the Constitution, cases can be taken to resolve disputes between the Centre and the State, or between 2 or more States[8].

Suo moto cognizance can be invoked in order to reopen old cases, if a substantial evidence regarding the same is discovered; and also if a new case is to be examined.

  • Landmarks Suo Moto cases

Out of the plethora of suo moto judgments by the Indian Judiciary, the following are classified to be the most recent of them.

Concerning the incessant struggle for the supply of scarce oxygen in India amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, several High Courts have held the Central as well as the State government accountable as a result of which the Apex Court have taken a suo moto cognizance of the same, amalgamating all such cases in order to avoid confusion[9]. The court focussed on the need to have a national plan to tackle such oxygen shortage problem in the nation[10].

Next, in the infamous Hathras gang rape case in 2020, where the Allahabad High Court exercised its suo moto cognizance and took up the case to hold that the hurried cremation of the dead body amounts to a gross violation of fundamental as well as human rights of the deceased[11].

It should be noted that suo moto power is not just limited to the judiciary, but it also extends to the quasi-judicial bodies including the National Green Tribunal and Human Rights Commission. One of the recent suo moto case taken up by the NGT bench in Kochi is on the basis of media reports stating the commencement of stream mining in Pamba river by the State government[12].

  • Analysis and Conclusion

To brief up, the suo moto power of the courts is exercised in the most urgent and necessary cases which again is subject to the conscience and discretion of the particular Court taking up such case. Even if such cognizance acts as an asset to the Indian Judiciary, as it assists the people of the nation to be represented and seek a speedier remedy as justice to their infringed rights, one should understand that the exercise of the same results in an implied repercussion with respect to increase in the pendency of the cases and most importantly giving an arbitrary grip on the discretion of the courts.

The question as to whether suo moto cognizance is a panacea or predicament can be answered if one analyses both positive as well as negative impacts of the same[13].

The said power has been criticised for several reasons. Firstly, in suo moto cases, the sheer essence of the concept of separation of powers is disrupted. The reason for the same is that the courts end up directing and monitoring the functionality of the executive by exercising its judicial activism through suo moto cognizance. In other words, the judiciary directs the executive to perform its functions efficiently when the concept of separation of powers states that the organs of governance shall be kept separate but work together. Even if separation of powers is not followed in India in its absolute rigidity, it is important to keep the essential functions of the organs unmarked.

Next, suo moto is also violative of the principles of natural justice as it is observed that the petitioner or the complainant becomes the judge in his own case which brings the aspect of biasness instead of neutrality. This further deteriorates the trust of the people in the judiciary.

Even when suo moto cases are influenced by media reports, there arises a huge question mark with respect to the authenticity and truthfulness of such information broadcasted as if proven otherwise, it would result in wastage of the time and resources of the judiciary.

Hence to conclude, suo moto cognizance in itself is coherent as the advantages of the same supersede its criticism. Therefore, considering the afore-mentioned reasoning, the power of the courts to take up matters on its own should be exercised in a most selective manner especially while categorising the type of cases to be taken by the court. More emphasis should be laid on the legal and judicial failure or omissions as compared to executive failures in order to ensure separation of powers. If the said power is exercised effectively, then it would assist in bringing out the best of it, in the interests of social welfare of the nation.

[1] B&B Associates LLP, Suo moto, available at; https://bnblegal.com/ last visited on 24/05/2021.

[2] In Re: Suo Motu Proceedings, Delhi vs Unknown, (1998) 9 SCC 250.

[3] Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration and Ors., 1978 AIR 1675, 1979 SCR (1) 392.

[4] The Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 129, 215.

[5] Gouthami Priyadarshini, Suo Moto Cognizance, India Law Portal, 26th Sep 2020, available at; https://indianlawportal.co.in/ last visited on 24/05/2021.

[6] Cambridge Dictionary, meaning of contempt, available at, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/ last visited on 25/05/2021.

[7] The Indian Constitution, 1950, Art 32, 226.

[8] Supra note 5.

[9] Times of India, Supreme Court takes suo moto cognizance of Covid-19 situation, issues notice to Centre, 22nd Apr 2021, available at; https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/ last visited on 25/05/2021. 

[10] In Re: Distribution of Essential Supplies and Services During Pandemic, Suo Motu Writ Petition (Civil) No.3 of 2021.

[11] Right to Decent and Dignified Last Rites/Cremations vs. State of U.P. and Ors., MANU/UP/2496/2020.

[12] Sudha Nambudiri, NGT files suo motu case on Pamba sand mining controversy, 4th June 2020, available at; https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/ last visited on 25/05/2021.

[13] Abhishek Gupta, Suo motu cognizance: A panacea or a predicament?, Bar and Bench, 23rd May 2020, available at; https://www.barandbench.com/ last visited on 26/05/2021.

Author: Dipti Gabriel from Christ University, Bangalore.

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