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R. Brizmohan Singh (Practising Lawyer)     01 March 2008

Legitimate Expectation

Legitimate Expectation is a new term being used in courts too often. Is it a new concept in Constitutional Law or Administrative Law or an integral part of Rules of Natural Justice or a new rule of Natural Justice?


 4 Replies

Prakash Yedhula (Lawyer)     02 March 2008

In English law, the concept of legitimate expectation arises from administrative law, a branch of public law. In proceedings for judicial review, it applies the principles of fairness and reasonableness to the situation where a person has an expectation or interest in a public body retaining a long-standing practice or keeping a promise.

In procedural terms, a person is entitled to a fair hearing before a decision is taken if he or she has a legitimate expectation of being heard. But the fact that a person is entitled to make representations does not, of itself, constrain public bodies which, subject to a duty not to abuse their power, are entitled to change their policies to reflect changed circumstances even though this may involve reneging on previous undertakings. If there is a substantive limitation on this right to make changes, it lies in a test of fairness where the public body's are equivalent to a breach of contract or there have been representations that might have supported an estoppel and so caused legitimate expectations to arise.

It is, of course, difficult to prove such a legitimate expectation unless fairly specific representations as to policies affecting future conduct have been made. The form of generalised understandings that ordinary citizens might have will not be sufficient for this purpose. And, even if there are legitimate expectations, there is no absolute right to have those expectations met. Fairness may require no more than a hearing or consultation before any change is finally decided and, if the citizen's expectation is real, the courts might require the public body to identify an overriding public interest to trump the particular expectation.

This supplements the Wednesbury approach but it may not be advancing judicial review very far since, even in cases where an estoppel might otherwise have arisen, it will be difficult to convince a court that going back on a specific representation relied on to produce detriment will be unreasonable, unfair or irrational.

The Supreme Court of India in the judgment reported in 2006 (8) SCJ 721 discussed the said principles as below:

"14. What is legitimate expectation? Obviously, it is not a legal right. It is an expectation of a benefit, relief or remedy, that may ordinarily flow from a promise or established practice. The term 'established practice' refers to a regular, consistent predictable and certain conduct, process or activity of the decision-making authority. The expectation should be legitimate, that is, reasonable, logical and valid. Any expectation which is based on sporadic or casual or random acts, or which is unreasonable, illogical or invalid cannot be a legitimate expectation. Not being a right, it is not enforceable as such. It is a concept fashioned by courts, for judicial review of administrative action. It is procedural in character based on the requirement of a higher degree of fairness in administrative action, as a consequence of the promise made, or practice established. In short, a person can be said to have a 'legitimate expectation' of a particular treatment, if any representation or promise is made by an authority, either expressly or impliedly, or if the regular and consistent past practice of the authority gives room for such expectation in the normal course. As a ground for relief, the efficacy of the doctrine is rather weak as its slot is just above 'fairness in action' but far below 'promissory estoppel'. It may only entitle an expectant : (a) to an opportunity to show cause before the expectation is dashed; or (b) to an explanation as to the cause for denial. In appropriate cases, courts may grant a direction requiring the Authority to follow the promised procedure or established practice. A legitimate expectation, even when made out, does not always entitle the expectant to a relief. Public interest, change in policy, conduct of the expectant or any other valid or bonafide reason given by the decision-maker, may be sufficient to negative the 'legitimate expectation'.

The doctrine of legitimate expectation based on established practice (as contrasted from legitimate expectation based on a promise), can be invoked only by someone who has dealings or transactions or negotiations with an authority, on which such established practice has a bearing, or by someone who has a recognized legal relationship with the authority. A total stranger unconnected with the authority or a person who had no previous dealings with the authority and who has not entered into any transaction or negotiations with the authority, cannot invoke the doctrine of legitimate expectation, merely on the ground that the authority has a general obligation to act fairly. 15. In Union of India v. Hindustan Development Corporation [1993 (3) SCC 499], this Court explained the nature and scope of the doctrine of 'legitimate expectation' thus :

"For legal purposes, the expectation cannot be the same as anticipation. It is different from a wish, a desire or a hope nor can it amount to a claim or demand on the ground of a right. However earnest and sincere a wish, a desire or a hope may be and however confidently one may look to them to be fulfilled, they by themselves cannot amount to an assertable expectation and a mere disappointment does not attract legal consequences. A pious hope even leading to a moral obligation cannot amount to a legitimate expectation. The legitimacy of an expectation can be inferred only if it is founded on the sanction of law or custom or an established procedure followed in regular and natural sequence. Again it is distinguishable from a genuine expectation. Such expectation should be justifiably legitimate and protectable. Every such legitimate expectation does not by itself fructify into a right and therefore it does not amount to a right in the conventional sense."

[Emphasis supplied]

This Court also explained the remedies flowing by applying the principle of legitimate expectation :

" it is generally agreed that legitimate expectation gives the applicant sufficient locus standi for judicial review and that the doctrine of legitimate expectation is to be confined mostly to right of a fair hearing before a decision which results in negativing a promise or withdrawing an undertaking is taken. The doctrine does not give scope to claim relief straightaway from the administrative authorities as no crystallized right as such is involved. The protection of such legitimate expectation does not require the fulfillment of the expectation where an overriding public interest requires otherwise. In other words where a person's legitimate expectation is not fulfilled by taking a particular decision then decision-maker should justify the denial of such expectation by showing some overriding public interest. Therefore even if substantive protection of such expectation is contemplated that does not grant an absolute right to a particular person. It simply ensures the circumstances in which that expectation may be denied or restricted. A case of legitimate expectation would arise when a body by representation or by past practice aroused expectation which it would be within its powers to fulfil. The protection is limited to that extent and a judicial review can be within those limits. But as discussed above a person who bases his claim on the doctrine of legitimate expectation, in the first instance, must satisfy that there is a foundation and thus has locus standi to make such a claim. In considering the same several factors which give rise to such legitimate expectation must be present. The decision taken by the authority must be found to be arbitrary, unreasonable and not taken in public interest. If it is a question of policy, even by way of change of old policy, the courts cannot interfere with a decision. In a given case whether there are such facts and circumstances giving rise to a legitimate expectation, it would primarily be a question of fact. If these tests are satisfied and if the court is satisfied that a case of legitimate expectation is made out then the next question would be whether failure to give an opportunity of hearing before the decision affecting such legitimate expectation is taken, has resulted in failure of justice and whether on that ground the decision should be quashed. If that be so then what should be the relief is again a matter which depends on several factors." (emphasis supplied).

16. In Punjab Communication Ltd. v. Union of India - 1999 (4) SCC 727, this Court observed :

"The principle of legitimate expectation is still at a stage of evolution. The principle is at the root of the rule of law and requires regularity, predictability and certainty in the Governments dealings with the public The procedural part of it relates to a representation that a hearing or other appropriate procedure will be afforded before the decision is made."

"However, the more important aspect is whether the decision maker can sustain the change in policy by resort to Wednesbury principles of rationality or whether the court can go into the question whether the decision-maker has properly balanced the legitimate expectation as against the need for a change.. In sum, this means that the judgment whether public interest overrides the substantive legitimate expectation of individuals will be for the decision-maker who has made the change in the policy. The choice of the policy is for the decision-maker and not for the court. The legitimate substantive expectation merely permits the court to find out if the change in policy which is the cause for defeating the legitimate expectation is irrational or perverse or one which no reasonable person could have made."

17. Recently, a Constitution Bench of this Court in Secretary, State of Karnataka v. Umadevi [2006 (4) SCC 1] referred to the circumstances in which the doctrine of legitimate expectation can be invoked thus :

"The doctrine can be invoked if the decisions of the administrative authority affect the person by depriving him of some benefit or advantage which either (i) he had in the past been permitted by the decision-maker to enjoy and which he can legitimately expect to be permitted to continue to do until there have been communicated to him some rational grounds for withdrawing it on which he has been given an opportunity to comment; or (ii) he has received assurance from the decision-maker that they will not be withdrawn without giving him first an opportunity of advancing reasons for contending that they should not be withdrawn."

Another Constitution Bench, referring to the doctrine, observed thus in Confederation of Ex-servicemen Associations vs. Union of India [JT 2006 (8) SC 547] :

"No doubt, the doctrine has an important place in the development of Administrative Law and particularly law relating to 'judicial review'. Under the said doctrine, a person may have reasonable or legitimate expectation of being treated in a certain way by an administrative authority even though he has no right in law to receive the benefit. In such situation, if a decision is taken by an administrative authority adversely affecting his interests, he may have justifiable grievance in the light of the fact of continuous receipt of the benefit, legitimate expectation to receive the benefit or privilege which he has enjoyed all throughout. Such expectation may arise either from the express promise or from consistent practice which the applicant may reasonably expect to continue."

"In such cases, therefore, the Court may not insist an administrative authority to act judicially but may still insist it to act fairly. The doctrine is based on the principle that good administration demands observance of reasonableness and where it has adopted a particular practice for a long time even in absence of a provision of law, it should adhere to such practice without depriving its citizens of the benefit enjoyed or privilege exercised."

SANJAY DIXIT (Advocate)     02 March 2008

Dear Yedul Prakash, Thanks for the vital information.

R. Brizmohan Singh (Practising Lawyer)     04 March 2008

Dear Mr. Prakash, Your write up on the subject is elaborate and yet, brief. I appreciate the precision with which you replied. I think this piece of your reply is laudable to be placed as an article on this website. Thanks. So, I sum up that despite proving a legitimate expectation, no relief can be claimed straightaway by way of judicial review except a right to a hearing. In that sense of the matter, would you have any objection if I say that Legitimate Expectation is an integral part of audi alteram partem of the Rules of Natural Justice in the process of Judicial Review. If you agree with this, the problem posted by me can be treated as closed. Your Comments Please.

Dr.Jai Prakash Jha (Dy.Chief Of Claims General & Legal.)     19 September 2010

Dear Mr. Prakash

Thanks for your write up.We have recieved vital information on the subject.I would like to request you sir, to clear me that an elligible govt. employee's expectation for promotion is also a legitimate expectation ?

With regards

jai prakash

(Dr. J P Jha.)

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